By Fr. George Welzbacher
July 1, 2007
Last weekend we were honored to have with us here at St. John's two of the Little Sisters of the Poor who made an appeal on behalf of their mission of caring for the elderly poor, an appeal to which you generously responded. Theirs is a mission that surely no one could fault, except possibly Jack Kevorkian. Or probably Christopher Hitchens, the atheist who holds that "religion poisons everything," that "God Is Not Great"-the title of his most recent book-and who, during the ABC Television coverage of Mother Teresa's funeral expressed nothing but disdain for her achievement. God bless all of you for your response to the Sisters' invitation to join with them in their wonderful project of mercy!
By happy coincidence an article that appeared recently in the national edition of The Washington Times (June 18) focused on the extraordinary dedication of the Little Sisters. It also highlighted the spiritual motivation behind the begging that sustains their mission. Begging as a corrective of pride, as a penitential practice and as an ascetic resource for growth in humility for the Sisters themselves-that is another aspect of their work that transcends mere secular philanthropy.
Here is the Washington Times report.
* * * * *Little Sisters of the Poor Devote Lives to Elderly Needy
By Gabriella Boston
Imagine begging every day, sometimes for six or seven hours straight, sometimes longer. It would have to be an awful existence, wouldn't it?
On the contrary, says Sister Marie Sophie Bux de Keating, a begging nun with the Little Sisters of the Poor in Washington, D.C. It's a privilege, she says.
"It's a way of sharing in practicing poverty," Sister Marie Sophie says. "When you serve the poor, you serve God."
Her order was started in the early 1800's in France by Jeanne Jugan, a Catholic nun who took it upon herself to house and feed the poor and elderly, says Sister Marcelle Larkin, also a begging nun with the order in D.C., which was formed in 1871.
Jugan wasn't a wealthy person, so to supply food and lodging for herself and her charges-the elderly poor-she made money by working as a domestic and by begging in the streets. Sister Marcelle says. She begged in their place," she says. "She was always joyful and grateful' and she used to say, 'Making the poor happy is what comts.'"
It is in Jugan's footsteps that Sister Marie Sophie and Sister Mareelle are walking. But not literally. They're not begging on street corners, baskets in hand.
Instead-in a modern, pragmatic take on begging-the sisters, wearing traditional black, gray and white habits, go out in a white Ford E-150 passenger van adorned with Christian trinkets and symbols to seek in-kind contributions from businesses at the Florida Avenue Market in Northeast Washington and other produce and meat markets.
At the end of the day, the van usually is packed with everything from chickens to plantains, sausages to strawberries.
"We've been contributing to the sisters for about 20 years," says Ted Keany, vice president of sales for Keany Produce Co., which used to be located at the Florida Avenue Market but has moved to a large facility in Landover, Maryland.
"We all went to Catholic school, and we have a soft spot for the sisters," says Mr. Keany, who co- owns the company with his three brothers.
It used to be that Keany Produce gave the sisters whatever excess produce it had, including damaged boxes that couldn't be sold, Mr. Keany says.
"Now, we give them whatever is on their list every week. [ ... ] It's probably worth about $400 or $500 a week," he says.
The food Sister Marie Sophie and Sister Marcelle get through begging constitutes about half of the food used by the Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Elderly, which houses and feeds 100 poor retirees in its Northeast building.
"Begging is so important to us that if we can't beg, we can't have a home," says Mother Benedict Armstrong, the head nun at the home. "That's why we're not in Texas, for example." Or Germany.
Apparently, neither allows begging.
Even in states and jurisdictions that allow begging, such as the District, it is never a sure thing that businesses will give, Sister Marie Sophie says.
So, not only do the begging sisters have to beg daily, but they also face frequent rejections.
"It's difficult," Sister Marie Sophie acknowledges, "but as Jeanne Jugan said, 'It's for God, and we don't know how God works in people's hearts.'"
Sister Marie Sophie recalls, for example, how one businessman brusquely turned her down as she came begging but then turned around the next week and not only contributed food but also gave her roses.
More often. the nuns get rnore than they request.
"You ask for three green peppers and they give you three cases of this and three cases of that," Sister Marie Sophie says. "Most of them are so generous." The reason many business owners are so giving toward the Little Sisters is because of the personal connection and the direct nature of the charity, the owners say.
"I know the sisters give it to the people who really need it. I like that I know where it's going, " says Bill Hartman, who co-owns the Hartman Meat Co. on Florida Avenue with his two sons.
On one of the sisters' recent begging excursions one produce company manager talked with the nuns at length about health care and insurance ordeals; another employee shared pictures of her children. It seemed almost therapeutic as the sisters stood there listening, comforting and sometimes praying.
"They've made it very personal," Mr. Keany says. "They pray for certain family members who're going through a rough time. They comfort us. "
Sister Marie Sophie says a visit by her and Sister Marcelle at least once a week also gives business owners and managers a chance for a short break in their busy lives.
"We're not religious for us, we're religious for the world," says Sister Marie Sophie, who has been a begging nun for two years. (Her predecessor did it for 18 years.)
"What we do gives people a few minutes to step outside the work-work-work mode of their daily lives." She says, "It's a way to let them have a part in God's work. ... They are taking care of the poor and elderly indirectly."
After six hours of begging on a recent Tuesday, the sisters pray for their benefactors on the way back to the home, which is in a wooded setting a stone's throw from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, removed from the hustle and bustle of the city.
The home, which offers three levels of care, takes only people who don't own a home and have less than $30,000 in total assets. There is a long waiting list.
At the home, Sister Grace Nemitz helps receive the food and plan and prepare the three daily meals the residents eat.
"We try to keep it varied and ask residents for suggestions," she says.
As a general rule, though, she has to plan meals around the seasonal produce because that's the cheapest for wholesalers to donate.
On the midday supper menu-the day's big meal-she often includes up to a dozen items, including side dishes, fresh fruit and assorted drinks, all served buffet-style.
Is it any good?
"It's very good," says resident Mary Nathan, 75, who's originally from Ciombatore, in southern India. "My favorite is the chicken with the sauce, what's it called?"
"You mean chicken cacciatore?" inquires table mate Anne Sparich, 88.
Yes, that's it," Mrs. Nathan responds.
The two, sitting in the home's second-floor dining room, which is bright with views of nothing but trees, agree they are so well fed they have to watch their waistlines.
"We have to walk to maintain our weight," says Ms. Sparich with a chuckle. She has nothing but words of praise for the place she has called home since 2000.
Half-jokes Mother Benedict "As you can see, begging pays off."