The 2007 GMC Savana Cargo Van with 200,000 miles on the odometer pulls off the exit a little past 9 o’clock on this Friday morning.
It’s August 31, one day after the Little Sisters of the Poor marked the 150th anniversary of the religious community’s arrival in the United States from France.
Two of these “begging sisters” in full white habits are in the back seat, silently reading their prayer books. While driver Gustavo Magallanes has made good time in the express lane of the 110 Freeway from San Pedro, they were slow getting started on their collecting, and the Little Sisters are 15 minutes late.
Sister Pauline Kelly, with 50 years of begging experience from locales across the country, looks a little anxious, maybe even peeved. Leaning forward between the bucket seats, she asks, “What time does the food line at Resurrection [Church] open?”
Gustavo, who’s been making these runs for 11 years, says, “Ten o’clock, sister,” keeping his eyes on the road. “Don’t worry. We’re fine.”
Sister Pauline sits back, concern still creasing her face. They must stop at the meatpacking place first. And she’s well aware that the best pickings at the East Los Angeles food bank are before the line opens. But, oh, no, now gates are going down at a train crossing, the lone engine blowing its whistle.
Turning to Sister Maureen O’Grady, the community’s other begging nun, she asks: “Let’s pray to St. Joseph?”
They do. The engine reverses its course. And the gates go up.
“You see,” Sister Pauline points out to the ride-along up front from Angelus News. “I’m telling you, praying to St. Joseph works.”
The van arrives at Daniel’s Western Meats at 9:30 a.m. The 77-year-old woman religious slides open the van’s side door, deftly steps down with her cane and makes straight toward a man in a navy baseball cap, greeting him with an open smile.
Returning the expression, manager Rick Gutierrez says, “Hold on a second, Sister.” He barks out orders to men driving forklifts with pallets stacked with boxes of food racing along the loading dock, like bumper cars at an amusement park trying to stay out of each other’s way. Sirens sound off as they back up, then swing around to maneuver their pallets into waiting delivery trucks.
In 10 minutes, a forklift with a pallet piled with 40 pounds of beef, 30 pounds of pork loin, 10 pounds of hot dogs, plus sausage links and chicken shows up at the spot where Gustavo has already backed up the Little Sisters’ van.
After spending a few minutes catching up with Gutierrez, the begging sister bids farewell.
“Thank you for helping us. God bless.”
The first Little Sisters of the Poor to come to Los Angeles arrived on a train from Chicago on Jan. 18, 1905. But it wasn’t until three years later that their first home, St. Ann’s, was able to open in Boyle Heights.
That’s where they took in and sheltered the elderly poor in Southern California for 71 years, until the wooden-beam building could no longer meet modern fire codes. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles, however, offered the community the closed Fermin Lasuen High School in San Pedro as its new home.
After major modifications and additions, the Little Sisters moved 120 senior citizens into the Jeanne Jugan Residence on Aug. 7, 1979. Today, the three-floor, brick-trimmed stucco connected buildings are home to about 100 older men and women. Range of care goes all the way from independent living apartments to residential care, assisted living and skilled nursing.
But the mission harkens back to Jeanne Jugan, who in 1839 took into her own home in France a single elderly blind and paralyzed woman.
Later, when other women joined her ministry, they would walk the streets with begging baskets, knocking on doors asking for food, clothing and wood to keep their homes going. It was their charism, their fourth vow of hospitality: to provide a caring place for older impoverished men and women.
Today, that’s no easy task to keep going in a place like LA, with a youth-dominating culture that often treats the frail and elderly as disposable.
And then there’s the basis of the Little Sisters’ economic model that seems downright crazy in today’s American secular society: Begging.
St. Jeanne Jugan, who believed “the poor are Our Lord” and was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009, had complete faith in Divine Providence. And the religious community she founded has never sought any long-term steady source of income from endowments, investments, or stock portfolios. God would provide, often through the generosity of donors.
So over the 179 years of their existence, begging baskets have become begging horse-drawn carts and today’s begging vans. Nearly 30 homes are spread across the U.S., although others closed due to a shortage of vocations. Worldwide locations include Chile, Colombia, England, France, Ireland, Australia, Kenya, Taiwan and the Philippines.
Sister Pauline has been an integral part of that incredible financial plan for half a century. But as a young woman religious, who became a Little Sister of the Poor right out of Catholic high school in Oakland, it was hard. Really hard.
“I was in my 20s, and the Little Sister who did the begging in Baltimore died, so I was asked would I do it,” she explains. “But at first I was scared. I didn’t really like to go and ask for things. But after a while, you know, it’s not for yourself. It’s for the old people and it’s for the glory of God. And you’re giving these people the opportunity to make an act of charity, to do something for God.
She ticks off the places where she’s begged: Indianapolis, New Orleans, Gallup (New Mexico), Denver, Delaware, Washington, and since last year, San Pedro.
Sister Pauline remembers being assigned to raise $500 for every hole in a golf tournament near Chicago. Desperate, she decided to approach a local produce businessman other sisters had warned shooed them away. And they were right.
“Who are you and what do you want?” he asked when she showed up at his office. As she tried to explain about the 18-hole tournament, he grabbed the flier from her hands.
But then his disposition changed reading it. Lighting up a cigarette, he asked, “Do you want a smoke?”
“No, thank you,” she managed to say.
“Do you want a drink?”
Another polite decline before noting, “But I do play cards, and I have a card trick I’ll bet you $500 you cannot figure it out.”
He couldn’t and turned to his secretary: “Get her a $500 check and get her out of here.”
Anthony, however, became a dear friend, donating $500 every time she happened to come by.
That and other encounters only honed her begging skills.
“I’ve had the privilege of going out, asking for donations and seeing the goodness of people in businesses, homes, and churches,” says Sister Pauline. “You have to be able to talk about our order and tell them about what we do — taking care of the elderly, giving them love, respect, dignity. A lot of people, even Catholics, don’t know what we do. They see us in these habits and think we’re teachers.
“But it’s been a beautiful life. The Lord says, ‘You’ll have a hundredfold.’ And it’s true! We certainly have seen a hundredfold, seeing how God has blessed us in so many ways. People are giving us stuff all the time. Of course, you have your ups and downs. But that’s every life.”
Sister Pauline’s worries are coming true as the van pulls into the parking lot behind Resurrection Church. At 10 after 10 a.m., there’s not only a long line, but some people are walking away with bags of groceries.
“Oh, my gosh!” she sighs, but then catches herself, “Well, they need it more than we do.” But the van is still able to swap loaves of bread, buns, bagels, and frosted cakes for potatoes, onions, asparagus, grapes, and six watermelons.
Twenty minutes later, now by surface streets instead of freeways, the GMC Cargo Van arrives at Los Angeles’ Central Market, south of downtown. It pulls up to a spot near the center of a loading dock half as long as a football field. Again, she’s the first one out, going up to a man this time with a long scraggly beard. “How are you doing, Joe?”
Nodding at the nun in her still spotless white habit, he says, “Good, thank you. We’ve got cantaloupe, Honey Dew?”
“What about strawberries?” Sister Pauline asks.
“I’ll check around,” he says, walking away. When Joe comes back, he cautions, “Ok, but with these strawberries, you’ve got to use them fast. You need more, we give you more.”
When she nods, he asks, “Eggplant?”
“Yeah, we can stick one or two in the icebox.” Then she spots a wood carton full of brown, hairy fruit. “What are those?”
“They’re coconuts,” he answers with a chuckle.
“They cut off the tops, clean them up. And they get a big meat.”
Sister Pauline is shaking her head. “People eat that stuff?” Then the Little Sisters’ pallet on a forklift catches her eye. “Holy moley, look at all those melons and strawberries,” she quips. This gets Joe smiling. After the van is loaded, and goodbyes are exchanged, she whispers, “Thank you, my God.”
On the way back to San Pedro, Sister Pauline points out how the five-day-a-week food runs offset 90 percent of the food bill for residents and the eight Little Sisters at the Jeanne Juan home.
That, along with special collections at parishes in the archdiocese, allows the home to have a sliding scale to house the elderly poor. Most are on Medi-Cal (California’s version of the federal antipoverty Medicaid program) and Medicare for seniors. Along with their Social Security benefits and pensions, fees can be adjusted downward.
And that’s great, she believes, because with aging Baby Boomers falling into poverty and needing health care, St. Jeanne Jugan’s mission to the elderly poor will be needed more than ever in the U.S.
“Our foundress was truly a humble person, very humble, even when a local priest took over her ministry from her,” says Sister Pauline, frowning now. “She never said a word about that and died anonymously. But God saved her before for something special. He wanted her to take care of the poor, take care of the old people. So we want to keep her spirit going.”
To support the Jeanne Jugan Residence in San Pedro, email Sister Pauline Kelly at [email protected] or call 310-548-0625.
R.W. Dellinger, features editor for Angelus, is one of the deans of Catholic journalism in the United States. In a career that has spanned nearly three decades, Bob has told the story of the Church’s work for justice and peace through expert analysis, and narrative and investigative reporting from the “peripheries” of Los Angeles, among the poor, the homeless, the prisoner, and the disabled and marginalized. In 2018, the Catholic Press Association named him “Writer of the Year,” and said this about Bob’s work: “Amazing topics explored fully through, interviewing, observation and research. Beautifully done. … Dellinger shows us the place and faces where our faith is and where it should take us. A great body of work.”
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