By H. Haveman
On a quiet road, tucked between neighborhoods, is a place you may never have noticed. It’s a sprawling structure, built on a hill among the juniper trees, with breathtaking views of the red rocks east of town. Though you may never have visited, you are invited to, for this is Villa Guadalupe, a home to fifty elderly residents and the eight Little Sisters of the Poor who care for them. And they love visitors!
The First Little Sister
Jeanne Jugan was born in Cancale, a small seaport in northwestern France, in 1792. She was the sixth of eight children whom her mother raised alone after her father died. As a young woman, Jeanne turned down a marriage proposal, telling her mother, “God wants me for himself. He is keeping me for a work which is not known . . .” Jeanne left home and worked in a hospital as a nurse’s aide for six years, then went to work for an elderly woman in her home, who considered her more of a friend than a maid. The two women shared the Catholic faith and visited and cared for many of the poor people in town until the elderly friend passed away.
In 1839, Jeanne took in a blind and infirm elderly woman, giving up her own bed, in order to care for her. Shortly after, another person was taken in. Two friends assisted Jeanne in caring for them. This was the humble beginning of a great work for which Jeanne Jugan would later be canonized a Saint (October 11, 2009).
The mission of Little Sisters of the Poor and Jeanne’s spirituality are best described in her own words: “It is a great grace that God has given you in calling you to serve the poor . . . Making the elderly happy – that is what counts!” Jeanne died in 1879 at the age of 86, but her devotion to showing hospitality to the aged and unfortunate continued to grow.
Today there are 202 homes in 32 countries where the Little Sisters provide care for the elderly poor.
A small group of Little Sister foundresses came to the missionary diocese of Gallup on December 11, 1983 – the eve of the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe – at the request of Bishop Jerome J. Hastrich, who was concerned about the many elderly poor in the area. Establishing the home, called Villa Guadalupe, presented many challenges, including navigating the muddy, winter roads on the Reservation in order to bring food and water to the elderly Navajos and learning about the Navajo culture and language. However, within a year, Villa Guadalupe was home to seven elderly residents. In spring 1989 a new structure was completed to accommodate more residents and in 2000 twelve independent living apartments were added.
Today, fifty residents, men and women of many ethnic and faith backgrounds, make up the “family” at Villa Guadalupe. The home is an assisted living facility, not a nursing home, where residents can participate in a number of program and activities throughout the day. A staff of fifty employees, supervised by the Little Sisters, helps ensure their comfort and health. Sister Gonzague, who oversees admissions and development, among other things, said, “This is the residents’ home. Our life revolves around theirs.”
After speaking with Sister Gonzague about the residents, the staff, and the needs at Villa Guadalupe, she suggested that I return the following day to visit with and photograph some of the residents. When I came back, it was lunchtime and I found my way to the dining hall. Though I was interrupting their lunch, toting an ominous looking camera, I was greeted with smiles and even invited to sit down and grab a plate of enchiladas. Some residents allowed me to take their photos while they ate; some even invited me to chat, while others looked too involved in their lunch or companions or the beautiful view from the cafeteria windows. One woman began telling me about her years as a volunteer and now resident at Villa Guadalupe. “You couldn’t live in a nicer place,” she remarked.
After visiting with the residents, I was pleasantly greeted by a couple of long-term volunteers who have traveled here for five consecutive years from Show Low, AZ to serve. Cathy and Darrell couldn’t say enough about the life and youth that they absorb from being at the home and working with the residents. Volunteers are always needed and welcomed, announced Mary Smallcanyon, the volunteer coordinator at Villa Guadalupe. “It’s a small place, but it’s a big place, too,” she said with a laugh. “There’s always something to do here.” And there’s something for everyone who has a bit of extra time, from yard work, helping with arts and crafts, and laundry, to food prep, visiting or taking a walk with the residents.
The congregation of Little Sisters throughout the world holds firmly to the example of hospitality and the tradition of begging that was demonstrated by Saint Jeanne Jugan. They commit themselves exclusively to the service of the elderly poor, not only in taking care of their basic physical needs, but in forming relationships based on love and respect, as well. They continue to rely on donations of food, commodities and money to help offset their operating costs. Never having accepted a perpetual or permanent form of income, according to St. Jeanne Jugan’s wishes, the Little Sisters of the Poor have never had to close a home because of lack of funds! Their devout faith and trust in God’s provision has resulted in important bonds with local markets and non-profits and supporters around the world.
The Little Sisters of the Poor have cared deeply for the elderly poor around the world for more than 170 years, yet they provide a relevant example for our society today. By 2030 one in five Americans will be elderly. In a society that is tragically unprepared for the aging population, the Little Sisters help to emphasize the value of advancing age and the contribution that elderly can make through wisdom and experience gained throughout their lives.
Truly, Villa Guadalupe is a blessing to the residents who live there, but the blessing is reciprocated and experienced by all who spend time with these dear men and women.
For more information on Little Sisters of the Poor or to volunteer at Villa Guadalupe, call (505) 863-6894 or visit www.littlesistersofthepoorgallup.org.