Little Sisters of the Poor celebrates 150 years in America with Brighton Heights mass | TribLIVE.com
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Little Sisters of the Poor celebrates 150 years in America with Brighton Heights mass

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Sister Marcel Joseph and a Little Sisters of the Poor resident.

As a child, Sister Marcel Joseph wasn’t too keen on old people.

But, as a member of the Junior Legion of Mary, an organization dedicated to the spiritual development of young Catholics, she was assigned to visit a Little Sisters of the Poor nursing home on a weekly basis.

“I was so afraid of the elderly and I’d never been around sick people,” she admits. “I said to the Lord as I was walking home, ‘Please don’t ask me to go back to Little Sisters of the Poor.’ The Lord knew where he wanted me and, eventually, I started going every day.”

She’s been a part of the religious order for more than 50 years, caring for low-income seniors all over the country, from her native Nashville to Mobile to Chicago to Pittsburgh.

“It’s a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week mission; a wonderful, beautiful mission,” she says with a smile and just a hint of a Southern accent. “There’s a joy that you really can’t put into words. Residents need to be loved and respected. Little Sisters set the standard. We are all one family. We treat residents as we would serve Jesus Himself.”

Last summer, Little Sisters of the Poor began celebrating a jubilee year, marking the 150th anniversary of the community’s arrival in America.

On Sunday at 11 a.m., the local congregation will hold a Mass at their Benton Avenue home in Brighton Heights, followed by a reception and open house from noon to 4 p.m. The main celebrant will be Bishop William J. Winter.

Saint Jeanne Jugan, who was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009, founded Little Sisters of the Poor in France in 1839. As a young woman, she felt compelled to help the destitute elderly and inspired many of her female peers to do the same. Their acts of kindness spread throughout Europe. In 1868, the order crossed the pond, establishing 13 homes in the United States.

A few years later, seven sisters were sent to Allegheny City, a part of town now known as the North Side. At a small home on Cedar Avenue, they took in folks who were sick, needy and withered by age, relying on donations to carry out their mission. As the need grew, so did the order, which built a second home on Penn Avenue in Garfield in 1885. (The building was damaged — and 48 lives were lost — in a 1931 fire. It closed in 1971.)

The current facility, located on nine hilltop acres, opened in 1923. Extensive renovations and additions have been made since then, including the construction of 45 independent living apartments with communal areas that make the place feel more like a college dormitory. Ninety-three residents and 14 sisters occupy the site. To apply for a space, a person must be over 65 and financially needy.

Development director Kathleen Bowser says nearly all of the residents are on Medicare and the other half of the home’s income is donation-based. Each day, two sisters hit the streets to collect money and food.

If a sister is physically unable to contribute, she offers prayers to help further the cause. Although there are many moments spent in silent reflection, the nuns lead a busy life.

Clad in white habits, they bustle through the hallways, always willing to lend a hand or an ear. Activities range from music and art therapy to bingo and gardening. There are daily meals and weekly outings (Ross Park Mall is a popular destination). Sister Marcel Joseph says the sisters try to keep up with the latest technology. As if on cue, her cellphone rings.

She silences the device.

“People think working in a nursing home is boring,” she says, chuckling. “We would welcome boredom.”

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