Editor’s note: this is the first in a series on religious communities throughout the Diocese of Gallup. With each issue of the Voice of the Southwest, we’ll visit and profile one of the religious groups following the call to do God’s work for the people of our Diocese.
In 1839, a woman by the name of Jeanne Jugan noticed the many elderly poor in her area of France, and one night accepted an old blind woman into her home, giving up her own bed so that the old woman would be comfortable. This act blossomed into the eventual founding of the Little Sisters of the Poor, and the old blind woman was the first in a long line of elderly residents who today make their homes with the Little Sisters in over 30 countries worldwide. Their foundress, now St. Jeanne Jugan, was canonized in 2009 by Pope Benedict XVI, who said that her “compassionate gaze on the aged, drawn from a profound communion with God, was carried by Jeanne Jugan throughout her joyous and disinterested service, practiced with gentleness and humility of heart, wishing to be herself a poor person among the poor.”
The Diocese of Gallup is fortunate to have one of the homes of the Little Sisters, “Villa Guadalupe”, within the city of Gallup. At the invitation of Bishop Hastrich, a piece of land was officially designated for the nuns in 1983, with completion of the main home and convent finishing in 1989. The main home functions as a nursing home for about 40 elderly people of various ethnic and religious backgrounds, and is staffed by nearly 20 employees, with countless others volunteering their time each week.
In 2000, 12 apartments were added for elderly people who can still maintain a standard of independent living, making Villa Guadalupe into the final complex it is today. Alongside the living facilities, the home has a recreation and performing arts room, coffee shop, arts and crafts room, and a large chapel in the shape of a hogan, the traditional Navajo dwelling. Many of the residents are Navajo, and the stained-glass windows of the chapel feature the Native American Saint, Kateri Tekakwitha, along with St. Jeanne Jugan and Christ the Good Shepherd.
At any given time, between 6-10 Little Sisters live and work at Villa Guadalupe. Each sister stays at a given home for no more than five years before moving to another home elsewhere in the world, but while here, each one has a specific task to fulfill.
Sr. Francis John has been here for two years, and besides being the development director for the home, she is also the “beggar”, or “collector”.
“I usually go out before breakfast every day to beg at the different [grocery] stores around town,” said Sr. Francis. “And then once a week, I’ll go to Albuquerque to beg at the larger stores there.”
Most stores must remove damaged or expired products every week, and in many cases, they are only too happy to donate many of these wares to the Little Sisters.
“They’re very generous to us, and since we’ve been here almost 30 years, people know us so well that it makes it personal for them,” said Sr. Francis. She explained that the food, commodities, and operating expenses needed by the homes worldwide are all provided completely by charity. When St. Jeanne Jugan was first starting to take in elderly persons, she would go to the people of her community to beg them to give what they could for the needs of the poor. The Little Sisters of today, including those in Gallup, carry on that tradition, and take a fourth vow of hospitality on top of the three traditional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
“Everyone, even non-Catholic people, respect what we do,” said Sr. Francis. “We take care not just of Catholics but of all elderly poor – we see Jesus in those we serve. People are open to that. Even when they’ve never heard of us before, they’ll come up and ask how they can help.”
Sr. Gemma was recently transferred to the home, arriving in September of 2012, but as the unit supervisor, she has already established a strong connection to the elderly residents in her care.
“My job is to take care of all the residents,” she said. “The most rewarding part of that is what the residents give to us – the joy and the happiness created in our family.” As she explained her favorite aspects of each day, she made introductions to various residents.
One Navajo resident, Emma Tsosie, spoke through an interpreter about her experience at the home. Born in 1928 and about to have her 85th birthday, Emma will be received into the Catholic Church in the spring. She described her excitement, and explained that she chose the Confirmation name of Frances, finding inspiration in the new Pope.
Another resident, a woman by the name of Arizona Fortney, speaks with a soft Southern accent as she reflects on her five years with the Little Sisters.
“I’m originally from Kentucky, and then I lived in Gallup for a long time,” she says. “When I first came here, they didn’t think I was going to make it very long, but I’m a determined person! I’ve been here for years now. All the Sisters are wonderful, and so are the workers. I’m lucky to be here.”
One of Arizona’s favorite parts of life at Villa Guadalupe is the home’s cat, a gray feline named Sophie.
“She lays on my bed. When I come back from supper or breakfast, Sophie is here,” she says with a smile.
Smiles can be seen everywhere at Villa Guadalupe – on the faces of the Sisters, the workers, volunteers, and the residents, especially in interaction with each other.
“It’s important for people to realize how important the elderly are, how much wisdom they have,” says Sr. Gemma, as she gives out hugs and greetings to residents during our tour. “Maybe for some they’re looked at as a burden, but here, they are family.”
At Villa Guadalupe, as in all homes run by the Little Sisters throughout the world, the family started by Jeanne Jugan so many years ago continues to grow.
To find out more about the Little Sisters of the Poor, or how you can help with their mission, visit their website, or give them a call at 505 863-6894.