This weekend I attended an event organized by the St. Dominic's young adults at the Little Sisters of the Poor Jeanne Jugan Residence. The Little Sisters care for DC's elderly and have been in the news the past couple years for their conscientious objection to Obamacare's contraception mandate, which merited them a visit from Pope Francis when he was here in September. Every sister I met - like the many nuns I have met all over - was cheerful, full of joy and, quite frankly, fascinating. Prayers to them in this monumental legal battle. They are models of what it means to live the faith, in many ways.
Our job as volunteers for the day was to spend time with the residents and then join them for daily bingo. I've been wanting to see the Jeanne Jugan residence (named for their founder) for some time, and was thrilled with the opportunity. The day began with Mass with the sisters in their chapel. I arrived with two friends and as we followed the receptionist's instructions to the chapel, we encountered a group of mostly women, not all sisters, praying the rosary. We had been instructed to pass through that room to get to the chapel and decided to wait it out. Then my friend leaned forward and said, "There's a casket in there!" I looked, and she was right. Silently, we moved away and found another entrance into the chapel and as we sat and waited, I joined my own rosary prayers with theirs.
But then, as it turned out, the Mass was to be a funeral Mass. As the priest came in, so did the casket and five grieving family members to sit directly in front of us.
Although it was a surprise, there was something rather touching about the whole experience. I had never met the deceased woman in my life, and have attended few funerals, yet the feeling of being an interloper was not very strong. Perhaps it was because of being in the midst of this religious community, none of whom would have been her blood relatives, as I and my friends were not, that made it less strange. It didn’t matter – here was a community providing support for the grieving family and paying their respects, as we did.
Once Mass was over, we ordered pizza and waited for the residents to finish their own lunch. I became acquainted with a small, lively Colombian lady (we shall call her Rosa). Rosa loves dancing, has seven grandchildren, and spoke a certain type of Spanglish that had her saying "pero" instead of "but" in every sentence. Bingo was still an hour off, so we talked and eventually she offered to give me a tour of the residents' floors.
The space is clean and peaceful; quiet and decorated with comforting religious images from all over the world. We passed a tall, wooden, painted statue of Mary holding a crucifix and Rosa said, "We do not know which one this is," meaning which apparition of Mary it represented. I didn't know, either.
In her room, she showed me her paintings - gorgeous watercolor flowers, landscapes and still lifes all done from memory. And on one wall was a collage of family photos from the 1930s-1950s her daughter put together for her. The family glamorous and decked out in furs in Colombia; her husband, the dashing aviator, in black and white.
We met everyone in the cafe for daily bingo. This was the highlight of the day: it reminded me of my time at the nursing home with the Legion, when we gather everyone for the rosary. But this was about bingo, so we gathered residents, got them cards and place markers, served coffee, tea and soda, brought out snacks and let the competition begin. My table was lucky; we had three winners.
Everything about that day made me feel loved, and I'm still trying to understand how that works. The closeness with the residents, the glimpse into their lives, the opportunity to, for just one afternoon, get outside my self and my own concerns - it was blissful. It felt very real, like for a moment the light of Heaven touched down on earth and I got to stand near it.