ST GEORGE’S ANGLICAN CHURCH, DUNSBOROUGH
SERMON 23 AUGUST, 2015
I’d like to introduce you to two women I’ve been spending a lot of time with lately. Two women who wore the whole armour of God in very different ways.
They are the Australian musician Dorothea Angus and the founder of the Little Sisters of the Poor, Frenchwoman Jeanne Jugan.
I am researching both women and writing feature articles on each, hopefully to get them published in suitable magazines.
Dorothea was British-born but came to Adelaide with her parents when she was six just after World War I. She got a scholarship to study piano at the Elder Conservatorium, probably enrolling in 1928 alongside Miriam Hyde, who turned out to be a famous composer.
The classmates made a pact to swap their new compositions with each other every year; and they kept to this pact for decades. Dorothea made more than 250 broadcasts and recordings on the ABC, and many of them were pieces by Miriam Hyde.
Dorothea’s piano teacher, Brewster Jones, died, and her scholarship ended. Her new teacher was the noted organist John Horner. Under his tutelage, Dorothea fell in love with the organ, and in 1938 was giving recitals in Adelaide and Sydney and enthusiastically received as ‘Australia’s top organist’. But getting a job was harder.
St Peter’s Cathedral in Adelaide, it seems somewhat reluctantly, eventually appointed Dorothea in 1936 as ‘Assistant to the Precentor.’
Now the organist at St Peter’s was J.M. Dunn who had been Cathedral organist since 1891 – a run of 45 years! The year Dorothea was appointed to the staff Mr Dunn died. His assistant Canon Horace Percy Finnis became the new organist. But this priest was also the Precentor and Bishop’s Vicar. It’s not hard to imagine the talented Dorothea, frequently, but anonymously, being called to the organ keyboard, or to lead choir practice, and for Canon Finnis to take all the credit.
In any case, Dorothea’s mentor, John Horner, was on a visit to Perth, and heard that Perth College was looking for someone to play the organ for Chapel and to teach all the music in the school, and he persuaded the Principal, Sister Rosalie and Archbishop LeFanu that Dorothea was the right person for the job.
Dorothea arrived in 1938 and found the music at Perth College to be chaotic and was desperate to go back to Adelaide. Two things stopped her: the coming war, and a growing friendship with Sister Rosalie. This was a friendship of opposites: Dorothea was always stylishly and fashionably turned out, Sister Rosalie was an old-fashioned Anglican nun always in habit with veil and wimple.
Sister would often slip into the Studio late in the afternoon while Dorothea practised and sit quietly in a corner. The two women had big personalities and big ambitions. From my interactions with Dorothea, I imagine they talked about faith in an energetic and purposeful way. Dorothea was always a little prickly; always ready to take down an opponent in argument.
Later on in life, she was sick in hospital, and I visited her. As soon as she caught sight of my collar across the ward, she yelled, ‘I don’t want a stupid priest. I’m not dead.’ I enjoyed the banter. But it was sad that such a talented woman had put up such a defensive shell around her, an armour that was not really the armour of God, but armour that came from being so hurt by the church that she dared not let it happen again.
Jeanne Jugan also experienced being silenced by the church. Jeanne was born in 1801 in a small fishing village in Brittany. She nearly married in her twenties, but told her mother, ‘There is some work that God has for me to do that has not yet been revealed.’
In her forties, she was sharing a house with two other woman in the beginnings of a prayer community. One day Jeanne found an elderly blind woman and brought her back home. She carried her up the steep spiral stairs to their apartment and gave the old woman her bed. Jeanne slept in the attic. She had discovered the work she was called to do: in community care for the elderly who would otherwise be on their own.
To support this ministry, Jeanne took a basket and began walking and begging money for her elderly people. People responded to Jeanne’s request by giving generously. The work grew. In only three or four years, they had opened several houses around Brittany. Women were being attracted to be part of this ministry.
The three founding women were working out a Rule of Life for their little community. A shiny new parish priest Auguste le Pailleur arrived in their village. He became spiritual director to the other two women. When the Rule of Life, which was partly a Constitution, was put into action, there was an election for Superior. Jeanne Jugan was elected without question. She was in everyone’s mind the one who had started this work.
Father le Pailleur used his authority as parish priest and deposed her, and put Marie, one of the other women, in her place. He then had himself declared as sole Founder of the Order.
The Sisters acquired a large property for their motherhouse where they could train the large number of young women coming to join. The property was called La Tour. Le Pailleur decreed that Jeanne would no longer go about begging for the order, but would live at La Tour-St Joseph among the postulants and novices, with no rank or recognition. Jeanne stayed there until her death 27 years later.
When they had completed their Chapel, the Bishop came and they had a large celebration. After the Mass, the Bishop sat with all the Sisters around him in a large circle. He spoke. Then Father Le Pailleur spoke. He talked about their beginnings. He mentioned all the founding Sisters by name, one by one, all except Jeanne. It was as if she wasn’t there, and had never been there.
Only once in that 27 years was there any official recognition of her presence. The Sisters had been given the chance to earn rent from one of their properties. A rich benefactor had warned them that they really needed to make up their mind about this because their identity depended on it. The Sisters were divided. Some argued that the rents were God’s way of making sure they were provided for. Others believed that if they came to rely on rents they would forget that they were dependent every day on God.
Someone remembered Jeanne Jugan in the novice house. They called her to the meeting, even though she wasn’t formally part of the council; she hadn’t even formally been professed as a full member of her own Order. They gave Jeanne the casting vote, and her signature appears on that one document. Significantly Father le Pailleur’s signature is not on that document.
Then Jeanne returned to the novice house. Those who remembered Jeanne afterwards remember an old tall peasant women with piercing blue eyes. They remember how joyful she was. They remembered how she joined in their work and their recreation. They remembered the advice she gave them about being ‘little’: if they were going to be of real help to the old people in their care, they had to be genuinely little with the little people, not be ladies condescending to do good.
In her forced retirement, being pushed away into the ranks of the least important members of the Order, Jeanne discovered how to put on the whole armour of God. She refused to be bitter, as most of us would be tempted to. Instead, she went into that silence, that withdrawal, to find God, to find joy. Then, with a twinkle in her eye, she discovered she was actually in a position to pass on her values to every new member of the Order as they came through the Novice house.
She died on St Joseph’s Day 1879, which was also Father le Pailleur’s feast day, so there was no announcement of her death. The next day, Father le Pailleur sent out a circular letter to all the houses of the Little Sisters of the Poor, thanking them for their good wishes and congratulations on his feast day. There was no mention of the death of the Founder of the Order.
The story does end well. The villain of the piece, Auguste le Pailleur, was eventually removed from his position as Superior and sent to a convent in Rome for the rest of his days. One wonders whether he found the same joy in his forced confinement as Jeanne had in hers.
Jeanne was recognised by 1902 as the Founder and first Sister of the Order. She was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1982 and Pope Benedict made her a Saint in 2009.
You and I are unlikely to be beatified and canonised. We are the wrong denomination, for a start. But Jeanne Jugan reminds us to use the whole armour of God not as a defence against the world, but as a way of turning the world’s attacks into new opportunities for being close to God.