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Called to Serve the Elderly - The Little Sisters of the Poor

By Fr Richard Nesbitt

The diocese recently celebrated the Requiem Mass for Fr Austin Hart, who served as a priest for 51 years. On the back of the Order of Service are the words: “Austin’s family would like to express their profound gratitude for the care given to Austin by the chaplains, sisters and staff of St Anne’s. It was outstanding on every level and a superb witness to Christian service and fidelity.”

I went to St Anne’s residential home in Stoke Newington to meet two Little Sisters of the Poor who work at the purpose built home for the elderly. Sr Agnes has been a sister for over 60 years and Sr Jacinta since 2007.

Q: What have you learnt about ministering to the elderly from your experience here?

Sr Agnes: Older people need to feel needed. We give the residents as much responsibility as possible in the house – simple but important things like managing the dining room. It helps them to feel that it is their house and they are helping to look after it. And we also remember that they have a lot of wisdom and experience to give.

Sr Jacinta: It is really hard for the elderly – they have been responsible for themselves and others for so long and now they have to do what others tell them to do. It’s the same here at St Anne’s, but I have learnt that the way we ask them to do something is so important – with respect and to try to involve them in these decisions as much as possible. They still need to feel important and loved. I have also learnt that touch is a very important way of communicating– especially for stroke or bed-ridden patients. 

Q. Do you think that the sisters’ spirituality has also changed since the times of your foundress, St Jeanne Jugan, back in the nineteenth century?

Sr Agnes: The fundamentals haven’t changed – we still depend on Providence. It’s interesting that when I entered the Congregation, we didn’t know much about Jeanne Jugan. She spent her last 24 years with the novices and postulants and she wasn’t looked upon as the Foundress. At the Second Vatican Council, we were encouraged to rediscover the spirituality and charisma of St Jeanne so we returned to her documents and life. Through this, we rediscovered her rich prayer life, particularly the dependence on God’s Providence in our daily lives. Our homes are rooted in fraternal charity and the spirituality of the Holy Family at Nazareth, meaning the residents, like the sisters, are family. There were two key phases in her life: early on she realised that “God wants me for Himself.”  At end of her life she was able to say, “I no longer see anything but Jesus.” Her whole life was given to this ever deepening relationship with God, lived out in a life of charity.

Sr Jacinta: Humility and service were at the heart of her spirituality. Jeanne Jugan taught that the residents should always have the best possible care. But in the convent, we live simply and try to live out what she taught us – to be humble and simple, to devote ourselves to the care of the elderly and to rely on God’s Providence.