Brian T. Olszewski, The Catholic Virginian

A deeply-rooted part of a Richmond Catholic family is leaving home.

Family is an apropos word, as Mother Jeanne Mary used it often in speaking about the Little Sisters of the Poor’s decision to withdraw from St. Joseph’s Home in Henrico. She is  superior of the 11 sisters who serve its 96 residents. 

“That’s part of our charism. That’s how our mother foundress (St. Jeanne Jugan) wanted us to be – a family,” she said after her community made the announcement about the withdrawal on Wednesday, Oct. 30. “We try to spread that spirit of being a family with everybody that comes in contact with us. You get to know employees, volunteers, friends and benefactors.”

The decision by the Little Sisters, who have served in the Diocese of Richmond since 1874, is part of the “strategizing” the religious community, whose motherhouse is in France, has been doing for the past five years, according to Mother Jeanne Mary.

In recent years, the Little Sisters have withdrawn from homes in St. Louis, Chicago, Cleveland and several other cities, leaving them with 32 homes in the United States. At one point they had 52.

Create homes

According to Congregation of Holy Cross Father Mark Cregan, legal counsel for the Little Sisters, the declining number of sisters is a major factor in the community moving its members.

He noted that the bishops in whose dioceses the Little Sisters served wanted them to take care of as many residents as possible, but the dwindling number of sisters didn’t allow them to manage “them in the style which the Little Sisters like to have their homes run.” 

“So this most recent reduction is really to be able to get the sisters to join forces and have strong communities where they are,” Father Cregan said.

The emphasis placed on family is as intentional as their use of “home” rather than facility. 

“The Little Sisters’ mission is to create a home — a home for the residents,” Father Cregan said. “Their mission, their religious life, is based on them living in the home with the residents. So it’s not just a ministry, it’s also kind of deeply embedded in their founder’s charism and their ministry as consecrated religious.” 

Not closing

About one thing Father Cregan was emphatic.

“The home is not closing,” he said. “The sisters are withdrawing.”

Mother Jeanne Mary noted that the sisters are staying until the sale of St. Joseph’s Home is final. 

“We will stay until everything is completed,” she said. “The sisters will not leave until everything is handed over rightly to somebody and that everything is in place.”

Father Cregan, who has been involved in six withdrawals of Little Sisters from homes, said he tells the community the process is like a new baby.

“Every baby is different, every sale, every transaction, is a little different,” he said.

Between Mother Jeanne Mary and himself, the priest said they had received a half dozen calls from entities that might be interested in purchasing the home. 

“We hope that it will be a Catholic group; we hope it will be mission driven,” he said. 

A buyer must agree to something rooted in the Little Sisters’ ministry.

“It’s a requirement that all the residents that are there can stay in place with the level of care that they’re receiving now,” Father Cregan said. “We don’t make the buyer do that forever, but we want the current residents to know that they have a place.” 

In letters to the St. Joseph’s Home’s residents and their family members, Mother Jeanne Mary offered residents the possibility of moving to another home sponsored by the Little Sisters.                   

“Know that if you wish to go to any of our other homes so that you can continue to be part of the Little Sisters’ family, you will be welcomed with open arms,” she wrote.

Father Cregan noted that the buyers often “hire just about all the staff because people aren’t breaking down the door to be CNAs or to work in nursing home facilities.” 

St. Joseph’s Home has 120 full- and part-time employees.

Unique model

According to Mother Jeanne Mary and Father Cregan, there are two words in the Little Sisters’ financial model that make it unique: divine providence.

“The sisters’ financial model really can’t be duplicated by any organization, even any other Catholic organization, because they depend in large part on the goodwill of other people, and they absolutely depend upon divine providence,” he said, noting that their fundraisers and appeals in parishes and to individuals account “for a good portion of their budget.”

Mother Jeanne Mary added, “It’s not that the people have not supported us; that is not a problem here. People are very good and have supported us all through the years. This is about stewardship of vocational resources; we are needed internationally.”

The model the Little Sisters use for charging most residents to live at St. Joseph’s is a hybrid. 

Father Cregan used the example of a someone in a Housing and Urban Development-subsidized apartment who pays 30% of their income toward rent while the owner receives a subsidy from HUD or from some other government program.

“The sisters do a similar model except for almost all of the residents, the sisters only take the 30% and they have to make up the 70%,” he said. “They would get 30% of the resident’s income, so that’s one area where they have to make up with the fundraising.” 

Beyond translating the sisters’ model into the new owners’ model, Father Cregan said they want to be sure that whatever project is being proposed “can be sustainable.”

“For the most part, the people that are purchasing these homes are expecting to run them as long-term care facilities for many decades to come,” he said. 

‘Strengthening mission’ 

In a statement on Oct. 30, Bishop Barry C. Knestout expressed his gratitude for the Little Sisters’ work and noted their place in diocesan history.

“For more than a century, the Little Sisters of the Poor have been faithful servants and true examples of Christ’s loving care and unwavering, tender devotion for the poor, sick, elderly and dying within our diocese,” he said. “I am deeply saddened to see them leave our region as their departure will leave a profound void within our community that is irreplaceable.”

Mother Jeanne Mary termed the sisters’ departure as “very painful,” but put it in perspective. 

“We go where we are assigned,” she said. “We all have to do what we have to do, so we march on.”

As the sisters prepare for their transition, Mother Jeanne Mary had a request.

“We would like the community to continue to pray for vocations and encourage vocations because that’s really the reason why we’re leaving,” she said. “Financially, we’re alright. Residents, we always have enough. But sisters, at this time, we don’t have enough.”

Father Cregan said the decision by the Little Sisters to leave will “strengthen their mission.”

“They fully expect that God is going to continue to send them vocations and they’re going to continue to follow their mission as a religious congregation. And their hope is, along with this withdrawing from homes, they’re also rebuilding and renovating other homes,” he said.