Take courage and be not afraid

Growing up, many of my family’s summer vacations took place at the ocean. Whenever we could afford it we would head for Cape Cod, New Hampshire or Maine. As we kids splashed around in the salt water or searched for shells, my mother loved to just sit and watch the waves crashing against the rocks. “I could stay here all day,” she’d often muse. We’d cringe at these words as we quickly grew bored and looked for the next great adventure.

But as I grew older and began to progress in a life of prayer, I came to understand my mother’s fascination with the sea. Whenever I visited the ocean, I’d find a good spot where I could watch the waves crashing against the rocks or rolling across the sand, pull out my Bible or my rosary and reflect on the majesty and Providence of God.

This summer I found myself thinking about the sea for a special reason, for it was 150 years ago this September that seven Little Sisters of the Poor set off from our motherhouse in Brittany, France, on a long ocean journey. The sisters traveled across the Atlantic in an immigrant ship named Napoleon III, arriving in Brooklyn Sept. 13, 1868. The massive iron vessel was built in 1865 expressly for transatlantic travel, but the trip must have been harrowing just the same. An etching of the Napoleon III shows the ship being tossed about by waves during one of its voyages.

Beyond the normal anxieties associated with such an undertaking, the young Little Sisters on their way to New York surely entertained a host of other fears — for they were about to begin a new life and a new mission in a foreign country, with no expectation of ever returning to their homeland.

But this little band of sisters had been formed in the school of St. Jeanne Jugan, whose charity and trust in God’s loving providence had led her to establish a new religious community despite a virtual lack of resources and preparation. Our pioneering Little Sisters surely rode out many a storm, leaning on their formation and trusting in the Lord whom even the winds and the waves obey (cf. Mt 8:27).

Despite their lack of proficiency in English and their ignorance of American culture, within two days of their arrival in New York, the sisters ventured out into the city to collect alms and procure all that would be necessary for the care of the elderly. Within a week they welcomed their first residents.

By the end of September, a second group of Little Sisters destined for a foundation in Cincinnati had set out on the long journey to America. A third group arrived in New Orleans in December. In just four years, the Little Sisters established 13 homes for the elderly in the United States; many more would follow. All were founded in extreme poverty but with great trust in God’s providence.

Amazed at how completely God provided for their needs, the sisters in one home wrote to the motherhouse, “Divine goodness never disappoints us in our expectations and often surpasses them.” Father Ernest Lelièvre, a French priest who served as the congregation’s ambassador in America, encouraged the sisters, “The Lord is with you; that says everything … Are you not his family, his people? Has not each of your homes had proof, a hundred times over, of his predilection? … Do not things happen every day which repeat to you: ‘You are in the house of the Lord, and it is here that he delights to dwell?’”

As we prepare to launch our sesquicentennial celebrations in our homes across the country, I find peace and confidence in remembering our story and thanking God for his providence everyday and in every undertaking.

At the same time, I am conscious of how much the barque of the church has been subjected to violent storms this summer and I confide to Our Lord those whose faith has been shaken in recent weeks. My prayer for all of us is that each day we may hear the voice of Jesus deep in our hearts as he calms our inner storms: “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Sr. Constance Veit is director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor.

 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018