One of the most shocking executions during the French Revolution was that of four sisters, Gabrielle, Marguerite, Claire and Olympe Vaz de Mello. After the death of their parents, these pious ladies devoted their lives to caring for the sick and downtrodden. In spite of their goodness, or rather because of it, they were dragged before the revolutionary tribunal. Their only “crime” was that they exercised a “baneful influence over their countrymen.”1
Jeanne Jugan was but a child at the time of this atrocity. While she survived the bloody eighteenth century Revolution, the religious order she founded might not be spared its more legalistic twenty-first-century version.
“The Poor Are Our Lord”
Jeanne was born on October 25, 1792, in Cancale, France. She was the sixth of eight children born to Joseph and Marie Jugan. They were a devout Catholic family that lived in the region of Brittany where the great Marian apostle Saint Louis de Montfort preached a century before.
In 1839, she encountered a poor, destitute blind woman that changed her life forever. Very much like the “good Samaritan” in the Gospel, Jeanne carried the woman to her home and cared for her as she would one of her own family.
Thus began her life’s mission, which eventually led to the founding of an order now known the world over as the “Little Sisters of the Poor.” Jeanne was canonized in October of 2009 by Pope Benedict XVI. Her spiritual daughters have earned a reputation of being faithful examples of compassion, much like the Vaz de Mello sisters. Their exemplary conduct in caring for their charges can only be fully understood when one considers the solemn promises they make upon entering the order.
Besides the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, the Little Sisters also take a fourth vow of hospitality. Spend time with them, as I have had the privilege to do, and you will see how this is by no means a light obligation, but rather their ability to see Christ in their neighbor. Indeed, it was their saintly founder who counseled her nuns to “Never forget that the poor are Our Lord. In caring for them say to yourself: ‘This is for my Jesus—what a great grace!’”
While the Little Sisters do have paid workers, the professed nuns carry out their tireless work without any financial recompense. Their pay is not measured in dollars and cents; they store up their treasure in Heaven. This abnegation should be enough for them to receive all the support possible to continue their important labor. However, there are those that apparently do not agree and are now continuing a persecution they have endured for four years.
“Flying Below the Radar” Not Allowed in Our Revolutionary World
On May 21, the “Little Sisters” were dragged into court by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro who wants to force them to include contraception in their employees’ health plan. This demand is but the continuation of a religious persecution, which began with the infamous 2015 HHS (Health and Human Services) Mandate. While the Sisters were given an exemption by President Trump in 2017, this did not stop the browbeating of Mr. Shapiro.
To force a group of nuns who take a vow of chastity and wear a virginal white habit to provide contraception for those unwilling to be faithful to the sixth commandant is absurd. It is simply not right to oblige those exercising restraint—in this case, the Little Sisters—to provide means for others to transgress a commandment of God. Nicole Russell of the Washington Examiner put it best: “It’s like suing Alcoholics Anonymous for refusing to pay for their employee’s vodka while the liquor store sits open down the street.”
There is another thing about the Little Sisters’ persecution, which should make us all sit up and take notice. As Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira notes in his masterly work, Revolution and Counter-Revolution, there is a historic process destroying the remnants of Christian civilization which he calls the Revolution. The present stage of this Revolutionary process no longer allows one to “fly under the radar.”
Indeed, the Little Sisters are the furthest thing from being activists against this process that you can find in the world today. They don’t protest on the steps of the Supreme Court against homosexual “marriage.” They don’t pray the rosary outside abortion clinics, nor do they decry the environmentalists’ claims that we are destroying our planet. Yet this is not enough to keep the wolves away. Those imbued with the Revolutionary spirit are not content to leave a group of sweet nuns alone.
Perhaps it is because their admirable example of virtue is as loathsome to Revolutionaries today as that of the Vaz de Mello sisters during the bloody days of the Terror at the time of the French Revolution.
There is no other way to make sense out of the fixation, which liberal Democrats like Josh Shapiro have for these marvelous nuns. This should cause holy anger and righteous indignation in anyone paying attention to the desperate plight of our dear Little Sisters.
The Little Sisters Don’t Retire, They Just Fade Away
Perhaps my anger at this gross injustice is because I have had the honor of staying with them at their home in Louisville, Kentucky. I have seen them—up close and in person—as they carry out their daily tasks.
It is nothing less than inspiring. The first impressions as you walk in the front door is the immaculate cleanliness of their facility and the cheerfulness that welcomes you as if you were part of the family.
The residents of the home are treated in a way that few humans would consider possible in our secularist world. This entails their physical care, which includes an in-house therapy room. There is also an activities center where residents take part in arts and crafts, which provides rest for both soul and mind.
Most importantly, they have a chapel with daily Mass, which gives residents the spiritual arms to live and eventually die well. It is not uncommon to see residents sitting quietly in the presence of Our Lord murmuring Hail Marys as they roll their beads between their aged fingers.
Those visiting the home will notice the very young nuns who energetically move about the home but pay attention to the older ones. These nuns move slower, but they continue to assist the residents, serving them their daily meals, for example, even when they themselves are reduced to the use of a walker. Little Sisters do not properly “retire” as other mortals. Their time of rest comes when they are confined to a bed where they prepare their souls for God. In a way, they are like the “old soldier” of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. They don’t die, they just fade away.
You will also notice something different about the employees who seem to have imbibed the order’s spirit of hospitality. This might leave a visitor to wonder if there even exists a paid employee who is capable of shamelessly demanding that such employers as these nuns provide them with contraception.
If the Little Sisters are one day forced to close their doors, who will provide the care for those in these rest homes spread throughout the country? It will certainly not come from state-run institutions that have all the material resources but lack the key ingredient they provide called love of souls.
Thus, we should turn our attention back to the Vaz de Mello sisters. After the insensitive executioner subjected Gabrielle, Marguerite and Claire to the guillotine, it was Olympe’s turn. She was only seventeen, but when she mounted the steps of the scaffold, her countenance shown with an angelic glow as if already beholding the Beatific Vision. The raucous crowd took notice of this. They had witnessed with utmost indifference the butchering of countless of their fellow Frenchmen. But when they beheld the supernatural countenance of this child, they cried out, “Mercy! Mercy!”
Much to the surprise of all present, the girl denounced the Revolution, crying out, “Long live the King!” In his book, The War in La Vendée, George Hill described how the executioner with a sigh, seized his victim and put her to death.
“The man of blood, whose very calling was murder, and who with the utmost indifference had put so many innocents to death, could never efface from his mind the death of that young girl. The next morning he was absent from his post, and in a few days he died.”2 Ibid, p. 130.
We can make a comparison between the Little Sisters of the Poor and this young Catholic martyr. Like her, their only “crime” is to stand out from an impure world as examples of chastity and charity. Like her, the Little Sisters are persecuted by someone who seems to be indifferent to the injustice he is attempting to carry out.
This is not surprising since Josh Shapiro is a militant supporter of the LBGT cause. He helped the first homosexual couples to get “married” in Pennsylvania and thus paved the way for marriage “equality.”3 Mr. Shapiro is, therefore, capable of fighting for the supposed rights of others.
Why, then, does he show such hardness of heart for these simple nuns who lead a life of prayer and devote their energies toward the tender loving care of the aged and infirm? They want to be left alone so they can fulfill their God-given vocation. For the love of God, Mr. Shapiro, Mercy! Mercy!
1. George J. Hill, The War in La Vendée (London: Burns and Lambert, 1856), p. 128.
2 Ibid, p. 130.