The first group of Little Sisters destined for America left the motherhouse on August 28, 1868; Jeanne Jugan was there to bid them farewell. After a long journey by boat they set foot on American soil in Brooklyn, New York, on September 13, 1868. No one spoke English.
Soon after arriving in Brooklyn the Little Sisters received their first donation from Rev. Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulists. After welcoming their first Residents, the Sisters wrote back to the Motherhouse: “The public appear delighted to see that we are willing to work for the poor; that we ask no endowment; that we desire to trust in Providence and in the generosity of the public.”
A second group of Sisters arrived in Cincinnati on October 14, 1868. The arrangements for this house were facilitated by Sarah Worthington Peter, daughter of an Ohio senator, who had visited the motherhouse herself to ask for a foundation in Cincinnati.
Six days before Christmas a third group of Little Sisters arrives in New Orleans. They were thrilled to discover that the house being offered to them by a group of charitable ladies was already named “Home of St. Joseph.”
On April 6, 1869 the Little Sisters established their work in Baltimore. Bishop Spalding stated, “The Little Sisters of the Poor are called to do a great deal of good in America, not only among the poor, but also among the rich; for words no longer suffice – works are necessary.”
From Baltimore the Little Sisters headed west, establishing a house in Saint Louis on May 3, 1869. Observing the Little Sisters, Bishop Ryan commented, “If one builds on holy poverty, Providence cements the building.” The Sisters regularly received help from a steamboat company on the Mississippi that solicited donations from their passengers and set aside leftovers from the dining room for aged poor of Saint Louis.
Philadelphia opened its doors to the Little Sisters on August 24, 1869. An act of generosity on the part of a young Philadelphian was particularly touching. Mary Twibill, a young woman of 18, was dying. Her father gave her the choice of having a fine monument made for her grave, or of leaving a sum of money to the poor. “What use will it be to have a beautiful monument after my death?” she asked. “I prefer to give the money to the Little Sisters of the Poor.” And so the Little Sisters received a legacy of $1,000.
Louisville welcomed the Little Sisters one month later. Bishop MacCloskey lent them an estate that had been intended for a seminary, arranging the chapel himself and celebrating the Sisters’ first Mass. The Little Sisters wrote back to the motherhouse, “Divine Providence provided according to our needs; within a few days, our house was found furnished with beds, tables, chairs, kitchen utensils and provisions of all kinds. We were quite overcome with gratitude towards the good God, who disposed so well people’s hearts in our favor.”
The Little Sisters arrived in Boston on April 19, 1870. As he witnessed the generosity of the local citizens toward the Sisters, the superior of the local Jesuit community remarked, “What I admire is that these Sisters are such as people describe them. One sees that they not only have confidence in Providence, but that they have not a doubt of its protection. One sees that they do not calculate, they do not reckon, they do not ask what people will give them for the needs of their poor.”
In the spring of 1870, the Little Sisters also opened a home in Cleveland. A German family provided them with linens, mattresses and all sorts of necessary items, while the bishop, along with a wealthy Protestant, contributed toward the purchase of property.
The tenth home was established in New York City, and then the eleventh opened in our Nation’s Capital on February 2, 1871. Together with the St. Vincent de Paul Society, Father Walter, parish priest of St. Patrick’s Church, Washington, D.C., provided the Sisters with a house with carpeted rooms, numerous fire places, plenty of furniture and a well-stocked kitchen. The Little Sisters were authorized to beg for donations in Federal government buildings – an unprecedented privilege that continued uninterrupted until the tragic events of September 11, 2001.
Back in La Tour, it was widely known that Jeanne Jugan had a soft spot in her heart for the first American young women who crossed the ocean to begin their formation. She showered them with special attentions, insisting that they were the first missionaries of the Congregation.
Many years later, one of these Little Sisters remembered Jeanne’s kindness: “I have never forgotten her kindness to us… She would often ask to see the Little Sister postulants from America. Some of the others would say that they were jealous because she liked the Americans. She would reply that that wasn’t fair because they were the first missionaries of the little family, and that they had crossed the wide ocean, being sixteen days at sea; that it was heroic for young girls to come from so far away, to say good-bye to their parents, their country and even to make the sacrifice of their own language in order to come here to prepare for the life of a Little Sister. It needed a double vocation.”
By the 1950s the Congregation had 52 homes for the aged across the United States. With the passage of the Life Safety Code and the dawn of nursing home regulations in the 1960s, nearly all the homes had to be replaced. Some were combined, others closed, but many were rebuilt. Today we have 27 homes for needy elderly persons in the United States.