Crying 'buckets of tears' | Little Sisters of the Poor withdrawing from St. Louis residence

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Patricia Stenger looked at five senior living facilities before she found the Little Sisters of the Poor. She knew their residence was place she wanted to call home.

Stenger, who moved into the Old North St. Louis residence in March, became tearful when she learned the sisters were withdrawing from their ministry in the Archdiocese of St. Louis after 147 years.

"They create a peace around the area," she said. "When you're with them, you feel like no matter what you do is important and no matter how you say it, it's important. They treat you just like they treat Jesus. This is Heaven on Earth."

At a press conference Aug. 24, the sisters cited an aging community and decrease in sufficient vocations to effectively staff the residence in north St. Louis, in the spirit of the community's foundress St. Jeanne Jugan.

While the decision is painful, "I know that this is what God is asking of the Little Sisters of the Poor at this time," said local superior Mother Gonzague Castro. "The work is in His hands and it will continue on one way or another."

"We have cried a bucket of tears and there's more buckets to come," said Mother Mother Maria Christine Lynch, provincial superior of the Chicago Province, which includes St. Louis. "We thank you and we ask you to continue to support us by your prayers. The Little Sisters feel this very much, but we're here for our residence and for the staff and the people of St. Louis who have been so terrific and wonderful to us."

The sisters are working with Clayton Capital Partners, a St. Louis-based investment banking firm that specializes in merger and acquisition advisement, as they seek new sponsorship to manage the property, which is home to 88 residents and has 125 employees.

Families of residents were notified by letter Aug. 22 of the sisters' withdrawal of sponsorship and staffing. Eight sisters at the north St. Louis residence will move to other community-sponsored residences in the United States. The timing of the sisters' departure will be contingent on finding a new sponsor. The sisters also have offered to assist residents who wish to move to another facility operated by the Little Sisters of the Poor. In Missouri, they have one other location in Kansas City.

Letters were sent to priests of the Archdiocese of St. Louis and religious communities, notifying them of the news. "This sacrifice will be keenly felt by countless people in our community, beginning with the residents, their families, and devoted lay collaborators," Archbishop Robert J. Carlson wrote in a letter to priests. "The Little Sisters of the Poor here in St. Louis have, for nearly 150 years, lived their order's mission, offering the neediest elderly of every race and religion a home where they will be welcomed as Christ, cared for as family and accompanied with dignity until God calls them to Himself."

Seven Little Sisters of the Poor arrived in St. Louis from France in 1869 at the invitation of Archbishop Peter Richard Kenrick. With a mission of caring for the elderly poor of the city, in the spirit of foundress St. Jeanne Jugan, they welcomed their first resident at a temporary quarters located Downtown at Ninth Street and Washington Avenue.

In 1870, property was purchased at North Florissant and Hebert streets in what is now the Old North St. Louis neighborhood. An existing home was arranged to allow for a greater number of elderly residents in need. The new building soon filled to capacity. Plans were made in 1873 to add a new wing and chapel. By 1900, a second wing was added, and the home served 276 residents.

In 1936, the sisters acquired a truck, to be used for "begging" for the needs of the residents, a tradition initiated by St. Jeanne Jugan. The St. Louis sisters continue that tradition today, asking for food, commodities and monetary assistance to cover roughly $2.4 million annually that is not covered by state and federal funding.

A new home on the same grounds opened in 1971, and a second residence in south St. Louis merged with the north city location. The residence was remodeled in 1993 to modernize the main dining room, provide a dining area for the Senior Day Center and complete a "mini-mall" area with a country store, gift shop, library and ice cream parlor. At the sisters' 125th anniversary in 1994, 15 new apartments were dedicated, allowing them to expand their work to well elderly of limited financial means.

The current residence offers senior apartments, independent living and intermediate nursing care. A Senior Day Center program exists for residents of the Hyde Park neighborhood who still live in their own homes and has about 20 participants.

There are 2,200 Little Sisters of the Poor who serve the elderly poor in 181 homes in over 30 countries around the world, including South America, Europe, Africa, Oceania and Asia. The sisters operate 27 homes in the United States. In the Chicago Province, which includes the St. Louis residence, the sisters' average age is close to 70, but many are in active service well beyond that age, said Mother Maria Christine. Four sisters recently entered the community in the United States, "but its never enough to balance off the need of the Little Sisters that must be there today," she said.

Judy Gregory has known the sisters since she was a child. Her mother, mother-in-law and sister lived at the residence, and she eventually got a job there, working as a housekeeping supervisor for 32 years. She's now a member of the Associates of St. Jeanne Jugan and volunteers there regularly.

"I can't even imagine St. Louis without the Little Sisters of the Poor," she said. "They've had such a big part in my life. When someone is dying, the whole group of sisters is there, praying with them."

Heaven on Earth. That's how 10-year resident Carol Williams describes her time at the residence. "It's like living in the desert, but there's this holy gem — a diamond in the desert. There's one ingredient that they've got — that's love. And that comes from their vocation with Christ."

Abiding by their vow of hospitality, the sisters treat the residents as family, and they hope that approach will continue, even after their departure. "We see our Lord Jesus Christ in the residents' face," said Mother Gonzague. "And it's Him whom we serve in them." 

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