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Sister Elisabeth Anne Learns to Be a Beggar so Senior Citizens Can Eat

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Little Sister of the Poor has begged, borough to borough, for 35 years

In New York City, when you hear “Hunts Point,” you think food.

Located on 60 acres in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx, the Hunts Point Cooperative Market is the largest food distribution center of its kind in the world. Trains and trucks bring in meat, fish and produce, and 50-plus independent wholesale food businesses send it all on its way, feeding more than 22 million people in the metropolitan area.

The nature of the business ensures a supercharged, competitive atmosphere.

Enter Sister Elisabeth Anne, a bespectacled 76-year-old nun clad in gray veil and white habit, covered at this time of year with a black coat. She’s been coming here for years, with one thing in mind: the elderly living at her home in the nearby borough of Queens, who are living off the generosity of strangers.

Sister Elisabeth Anne might stand out in the rough-and-tumble marketplace. But most of the folks who work here are well-accustomed to her by now. She’s been coming here each Wednesday for 35 years, after her superior at the Little Sisters of the Poor residence for the elderly first gave her instructions to go begging.

The New York Times profiled Sister Elisabeth Anne last week, noting that by the time she was done on her latest visit this week, “the van she came in was filled with hundreds of pounds of produce — all donated by companies that have come to expect her visit.”

“What’s for dinner, Sister?” Michael D’Arrigo, a vice president at the wholesale produce company D’Arrigo Brothers Company of New York, asked as Sister Elisabeth Anne sampled a cherry from a display.

The nun reminisced on the first time she was told to go to the market and solicit donations, back in 1979. “To go out and be a beggar was the worst thing you could ever ask me to do,” she said. “I cried my heart out for two weeks.”

On her first day, she recalled garbage cans of coal on fire, drunken workers and a fear of violence. “It was dreadful,” she said, her voice barely rising over the rumble of idling trucks. “There was no police protection, no security.”

Another D’Arrigo, Gabriela, marketing director for the company, acknowledged that Hunts Point has a bad rap. “It’s tough down here, it’s the Bronx,” D’Arrigo said. “But she makes people rethink what kind of community it is. Everybody loves dealing with her.”

Sister Sheila McLoughlin, the director of nursing at Queen of Peace Residence, where 19 sisters and support staff care for some 85 low-income older adults, said that begging is part of the tradition established by her order’s founder, St. Jeanne Jugan, in 1839.

Sister Elisabeth Anne also solicits donations from parishes and foundations, which, along with grants, the rent from some residents and Medicaid reimbursements, help pay the bills.

Watch Sr. Elisabeth Anne in action in this video report.

The begging tradition of St. Jeanne Jugan is explained on their website:

To an impatient benefactor who asked her why she burdened herself with all those old people, Jeanne replied, “We shall share them, Sir. You will provide for them and I will care for their needs.”

So trusting was Jeanne in the Providence of God and the goodness of others that, in her old age, she intervened at a decisive moment in our history to ensure that the Congregation would never accept guaranteed forms of income. To do so, she felt, would betray our trust in Providence. That is why, to this day, we do not accept endowments, perpetual trusts and other forms of permanent income. To some people this seems insane. Over one hundred seventy years and over 200 homes throughout the world are proof of the efficacy of Jeanne’s unique form of strategic planning!

Just as Jeanne was recognized by her begging basket, today’s collecting Little Sisters are known by the van in which they make their daily rounds, visiting businesses and markets asking for food and other commodities to help offset our operating expenses. On weekends they visit local parishes to ask for support. They plan mailings and organize fund raising events in favor of our homes. These Little Sisters carry on the tradition of begging so dear to our foundress.

Saint Jeanne Jugan, Pray for Us
Little Sisters of the Poor
Saint Jeanne Jugan, Pray for Us
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