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Humble Beginnings


Humble Beginnings

Thousands of elderly poor have a home today because of one remarkable woman.

Saint Jeanne Jugan grew up in a small town in the aftermath of the French Revolution. To support her family, young Jeanne worked as a shepherdess, kitchen maid, and tended the sick at a Civil and Naval Hospital. During these years, she discovered her life’s vocation: helping others.

Inspired by her Catholic faith, Jeanne set out to serve those most in need. She cared for the poor and the elderly as if they were her own family, once even giving up her bed for an old blind woman she found on the street, while she slept on the floor in the attic. Her humility and love of service spread among other young women, and soon the religious community of the Little Sisters of the Poor was born.

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A Vocation to Serve the Poor


A Vocation to Serve the Poor

Today, 175 years later, the Little Sisters of the Poor is an international Roman Catholic Congregation of Religious Sisters that continues Jeanne’s mission to serve others. The Little Sisters serve more than 13,000 elderly poor in 31 countries around the world. The first home opened in America in 1868 and now there are nearly 30 homes in the U.S. where the elderly and dying are cared for with love and dignity until God calls them home.

Government's Contraception 'Opt out' Form Reads and Acts More Like a Permission Slip

When I first answered God’s call to join the Little Sisters of the Poor and vow myself to Him and to the care of the elderly, I never dreamed of the happiness I would experience in serving, living with and caring for the aging poor until God calls them to Himself. I also never thought one day, I would be walking up the white marble steps of the Supreme Court to attend a legal proceeding in which the high court will decide whether the government can force my order to help offer health care services that violate my Catholic faith and that are already available through existing government exchanges.

For the past two years, since the time we felt we had no choice but to engage in this legal process, I have been saddened to see some of the anger and misinformation generated about our case. One of the most misunderstood aspects has arisen from early statements made by the government about how all it was asking was that we sign a form saying we had a religious objection to its mandated services so it could provide these services independent of our health care plan.

This is untrue. The government already knows we object. In fact, this is not our first appeal for protection from the court. In December 2013, we first asked to be protected from the fines that would accrue against us unless we provided the objectionable services. At the time, Justice Sonia Sotomayor stopped the fines and the government received a letter from us stating our objection. Even before then, since the government announced it had put this regulation into effect, we registered our objection in writing, citing our concerns.

Why would the government need us to provide these services? Everyone knows the government can provide free services to anyone it wishes without our signing a form. It has always been clear to us that rather than being an “opt out,” the form is an opt-in. It gives the government permission to use our plan to deliver services such as ella, the week-after pill. The form even says our signature will legally alter our contract with our insurance provider.

One of the most puzzling aspects of the case is that the government, at the same time it has been trying to force us to sign this form and provide these services, has exempted close to 100 million Americans from having to comply with this mandate. It has exempted its own military family plan, its own insurance for the disabled as well as large private corporations such as Pepsi. All these exemptions were issued for convenience or commercial reasons, but when we have asked to be exempted for religious reasons, we have been denied the same privilege.

As I look around the home where I live in Baltimore, I see those who are truly affected by this unnecessary legal proceeding: the elderly poor. Most of the people who live in my residence have nowhere else to go. The 13,000 elderly we take care of around the world come to us in search of a home and of good medical care. They seek solace and companionship when they have none. And we gladly commit to live with them until they complete their earthly journey. We tell them that once they come to our home, we belong to them and they belong to us because we are family.

My heart is filled with grief at the worry and suffering this has caused our elderly residents. I tell them that whatever happens, God will take care of all of us as He has since the founding of our order 175 years ago. As I walk up the Supreme Court steps on this coming Holy Wednesday, I will be reflecting on the words our foundress, St. Jeanne Jugan: "God will help us: the work is His." I will also be praying for our elderly residents. Finally, I will be praying that our laws continue to protect religious liberty, not only for my order but for all Americans. 

Mother Loraine Maguire is the Mother Provincial for the Little Sisters of the Poor. 

Obamacare Collides with Religious Freedom

For my order of Catholic Sisters, the Carmelites, Holy Week is usually a time for quiet prayer, fasting and reflection. But this year I will be flying across the country to Washington to stand in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in support of the Little Sisters of the Poor, whose lawyers at the Becket Fund will be fighting for them before the court.

For three years, the government has been threatening the Little Sisters with crushing fines unless they betray their beliefs to fit the desires of government agencies. We cannot stand on the sidelines. If we do, what will happen to the rest of us when we try to live according to our conscience?

I have a special affinity with the Little Sisters, who were founded, like the Carmelites, by a strong and courageous woman who felt called to serve the poor and elderly. The Little Sisters were founded in France, my own order was founded in Mexico, but both have survived many trials. Until now, however, our great country welcomed both of our orders and has allowed us to serve others according to our faith.

We now face, however, a government regulation — the Health and Human Services mandate of the Affordable Care Act — that would require many religious ministries to change health care plans to include services that violate our faith.

But while the government is trying to force the Little Sisters to provide these services, it has also already exempted a third of corporate health care plans, its own plan for military families, and its health plan for the disabled.

Those exemptions cover about 100 million people, and they allow big businesses to avoid the mandate for reasons of cost and convenience. That shows us very clearly that the government does not need to force all employers to comply.

But these exemptions also show us the availability of alternatives. The tens of millions of people not covered by this mandate are people who, the government agrees, can still get these services other ways.

The government likewise could easily accommodate the Little Sisters’ ability to live according to their faith, but instead it has called the Little Sisters “divisive” simply for asking the government to respect their religious freedom. Worse, it has publicly belittled the Little Sisters’ faith, saying in its brief that the Sisters are “fighting an invisible dragon” that they can “vanquish with their own pen” by signing their health plan over to the government.

In particular, the government’s lawyers say that the Little Sisters’ conscience should be clear — even if their health plan is used to distribute the Ella pill that can end the life of a human embryo several days after conception — because the taxpayers will cover the cost. Of course this has never been about money for the Little Sisters.

It is about whether they allow their own health plan to be used in a way that violates their Catholic faith.

Like the foundress of my order, Mother Maria Luisa Josefa, and the foundress of the Little Sisters, St. Jeanne Jugan, we all know there is a thin veil between this life and eternity.

The women in our orders want to be companions to the elderly and their entire family as their loved one prepares to go home to God. We consider it a beautiful gift to be able to journey with people during this sacred time at the end of life.

All we want to do is to continue to be able to serve God and others, and to do it faithfully. We hope our laws will continue to protect our right to do so.

Sister Regina Marie Gorman is the vicar general of the Carmelite Sisters. She lives in a convent in California.

Obamacare's Birth Control 'Exemption' Still Tramples on Rights

TWENTY-EIGHT years ago, I vowed to consecrate my life to living with, loving and caring for the elderly poor. Since then, I have been blessed to live in a community of women who seek to treat every elderly person in our care with love and respect — as if we were caring for Christ himself.

Over our 175-year history, my charity, the Little Sisters of the Poor, has been focused on service, not advocacy or policy. Nevertheless, we have been forced into the spotlight over our position regarding a regulation issued under the Affordable Care Act, namely that we provide health insurance coverage for birth control. On Dec. 31, 2013, Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a temporary stay against the requirement, just hours before it was to go into effect. Next week, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in our case against the Department of Health and Human Services, Zubik v. Burwell.

We are grateful to Justice Sotomayor, and to the support we have received over the last two years. But we’ve been saddened this past year to see misinformation about our pending Supreme Court case result in pain and confusion on all sides of this issue.

First, given how politicized the Affordable Care Act has become, it’s important to clarify that our case is not a challenge to the act, and winning our case in no way endangers it. We’re merely asking the court to ensure that Health and Human Services adjusts a regulation it developed that would force us to change our religious health plan and start offering benefits that violate our religious beliefs.

Second, some have mistakenly claimed that we can just sign a piece of paper and receive an exemption. Indeed, Health and Human Services claims it “accommodated” our religious beliefs and offered us an “opt-out.”

I wish that were true. In fact, the government has candidly told the Supreme Court that we “don’t get an exemption” at all. Rather, what Health and Human Services is calling an “opt-out” is really an “opt-in” — a permission slip where we authorize the use of our religious health plan to offer services that violate our beliefs and waive our protections under federal civil rights laws. That’s why they need our signature.

The government says this isn’t a problem because it will pay for the services that violate our religious beliefs. But for us this is not a money question; it is a moral question about what we offer in our plan. It’s similar to high schools that have removed soda machines from their property because they don’t think soda is good for children. It doesn’t matter that the soda companies will pay for the machines. And the school’s decision doesn’t prevent children from getting soda elsewhere. The school simply doesn’t want to be responsible for providing something it believes is bad for its students. It is the same with us.

We follow Catholic teaching that abortion and contraception are wrong, but it is very important to understand that this case is not about women’s access to contraception. The administration already exempts many secular corporations like Exxon Mobil and Visa from having to provide the services we are objecting to, because those companies never updated their plans and are “grandfathered.” Add in the exempted plans for military families, the uninsured and cities like New York, and about a third of all Americans don’t have plans covered by this mandate.

We recognize that not everyone agrees with us, and that the government will make laws and provide services we don’t support. But in a free and diverse society, the American government should not force its citizens to act in violation of their religious beliefs, especially when there are so many exemptions already, and much more effective ways to meet the government’s stated goals.

The obvious alternative to forcing us to offer these services is for the government to allow our employees to access them through its own health care exchanges. This would both protect our religious freedom and better meet the government’s own goal of providing contraception coverage to women — those in protected religious plans and the millions of American women in exempted secular plans.

Finally, some have argued that the Little Sisters aren’t a religious group — that our willingness to care for the elderly poor regardless of their religious beliefs and hire people to help provide that care who haven’t taken the same vows we have means we’re a social service organization, not a religious one. But Jesus never demanded that the poor demonstrate strict adherence to religious doctrine before helping them. And many religious organizations employ people of diverse backgrounds. Rather than being an indication we aren’t really religious, we believe our willingness to work with and care for anyone is one of the truest ways to live out the religious faith that animates our ministry.

Our goal with this case is to have the freedom to follow our conscience in what we do and offer. The women who take the vows to become Little Sisters of the Poor do so out of deep love and religious conviction. We spend our days caring for, learning from, and serving those whom many in our society would prefer to forget. All we are asking is that the government allow us to continue that work.

Sister Constance Veit is the Director of Vocations for the Little Sisters of the Poor. 

A Queens Nun With a Talent for Begging

To some of the workers at the Hunts Point Produce Market in the Bronx, it is a familiar sight: a nun or two darting around the concrete loading docks every Wednesday. Sister Elisabeth Anne, 76, has been making the weekly trip to the large industrial market for more than 35 years to pick up food for the older adults at the residence where she lives and works.

On Wednesday, she squeezed fruits — a persimmon here, a Minneola there — as she crossed items off her grocery list. She greeted the workers warmly on her way to stopping at more than a dozen businesses that call the market home. By the time she was done, the van she came in was filled with hundreds of pounds of produce — all donated by companies that have come to expect her visit — that will help feed those who live at Queen of Peace Residence in Queens Village.