For more than a hundred years, low-income and elderly Mobile residents have been able to turn to the Little Sisters of the Poor and the Sacred Heart Residence on McGill Avenue. The Midtown landmark is now being upgraded so the sisters can continue their mission for decades to come.
The Catholic-based organization, which was founded by Jeanne Jugan in 1839, is established all over the world and seeks to serve the elderly poor in the sprit of Christ. Today there are 29 LSOP residences in the United States.
At the request of Mobile’s Bishop, Edward P. Allen, the Little Sisters came to this area in 1901, and within two years were tending to the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of 40 residents. Through donations from Mobilians and others throughout the country, the Mobile facility was able to rebuild after federal and state regulation forced its closure in 1972.
A new building was constructed in 1976 and currently the Sacred Heat Residence houses 72 residents and has a waiting list of over 200.
“We feel very honored and humbled in our vocation. This is our life,” said Mother Superior Marcel Joseph. “The hallmark of our religious life is our humility. Our Mother Foundress said to us, ‘once we become proud, God will no longer bless our congregation.’”
Joseph is one of nine sisters at the Mobile facility who have dedicated their lives to the service of the poor and elderly. Of those sisters, three are registered nurses and two are licensed practical nurses.
Before taking vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and hospitality, each of the sisters goes through a novitiate period.
“Novitiate is a very intense formation time for sisters – spiritually, physical, mentally, emotionally and apostolically,” Joseph said. “It’s there that they learn how to take care of the elderly with the dignity each one of them deserves.”
That commitment spans from the time a resident comes into the home until he or she passes away.
“A little sister will always be at the bedside of a dying resident, so they’ll never be left alone,” she said. “It’s awesome for us as little sisters because we’re the last face they see on Earth and the next is the face of Almighty God.”
A staff of nearly 100 nursing assistants, housekeepers, cooks and others also work at the facility. John Goodroe, development director at the Sacred Heart Residence, said those staff members reflect the sister’s personality and commitment.
“It’s all about loving the residents. Not just taking care of them, but loving them,” Goodroe said. “When you look at for-profit nursing homes, the attitude you see here is no replicated in those places.”
Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements are the only federal funding the facility receives. The rest comes from private donations — as it has for more than century. Since the congregation was first founded, each order has relied on funding from within the community it serves.
“The vision of our Mother Foundress was sharing our mission with any city we’re in,” Joseph said. “It’s an essential part of who we are as Little Sisters of the Poor.”
That decision has kept LSOP order deeply embedded in their respective communities, but has also created an ongoing need for donations. Goodroe said the Sisters don’t accept large endowments and ultimately don’t want to have long-term financial security.
“How can you serve the poor if you don’t understand what they’re going through?” he asked. “They want to depend on the grace of God to sustain our mission through our benefactors. We don’t have a surplus, but He always provides what we need.”
Some of those benefactors are indeed from Mobile and from St. Mary’s Catholic Church, the facility parish church, but Goodroe said the facility also receives donations from all over the world. The donations are currently going to a multi-year fundraising effort called “Fulfilling Life’s Journey,” which will help make much-needed renovations at a facility that hasn’t seen any since 1976.
“These aren’t luxury items,” Goodroe said. “At today’s prices, it would take millions to build a new facility from the ground up. So we’ve come up with a plan to renovate and retrofit the building so it can last another 50 or 60 years.”
Those upgrades will include architectural changes to the tile and building layout and will also include some mechanical upgrades to the buildings fire system, heat pumps and heat exchanger. The campaign, which will conclude at the end of 2014, has already raised $2.56 million of its $3.3 million goal, and some of the upgrades are already being made as funding is acquired.
Donations can still be made to Mobile’s Little Sisters of the Poor through the organization’s website littlesistersofthepoor.org.
“The people of Alabama and Mobile have supported us for more than a hundred years, and all we have to give back is our prayers,” Joseph said. “He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord. It’s not us benefactors who will repay them, it’s the Lord who will repay this.”
Joseph said it’s truly a privilege to do what she and her fellow sisters do, which above all else, is about making their residents comfortable and happy.
“As little sisters, making residents happy is what really counts,” she said. “When they’re happy, they’re open to God’s love and they feel that love. We have time and time again heard residents tell us they’ve never really felt a love like they feel here.”