TORONTO – For sure, the Little Sisters of the Poor are nobody’s idea of a political action committee or a K Street lobbying firm. They’re a religious order founded in 1839 by St. Jeanne Jugan to care for the elderly, and they’ve become one of the largest women’s orders in the Church with over 2,300 members in 31 countries.
There are 300 Little Sisters of the Poor in the U.S., making it the order’s third largest country after France and Spain.
Given all that, the fact that the Little Sisters have found themselves for the last three years in the eye of one of America’s most ferocious political storms, becoming the face of resistance to the contraception mandates imposed by the Obama administration as part of health care reform, has been a bit of a stretch.
Two members of the order who spoke to Crux in August at the Knights of Columbus annual convention, being staged this year in Toronto, Canada, admitted that at various points, each has become weary of having to constantly field questions about the mandates dispute.
“There was a point where I was just weary of the whole thing,” said Sister Constance Veit, who’s been acting as the order’s spokesperson. “I wanted to ask, ‘God, why did you pick us?’” she said.
Yet both Veit and Sister Frances Elisabeth MacKay, who’s responsible for development for the sisters in Connecticut, said that getting involved in the mandates fight has also brought unexpected blessings.
“I get letters sometimes when they read an article and they’ll send a donation, saying, ‘We want to support you’,” MacKay said, who entered the order in 1952 and remains active. Veit said she hopes the order can “ride the wave” of publicity generated by the mandates case to generate new vocations to the order.
Veit also said she’s determined to use the platform afforded to the Sisters by the mandates controversy to raise awareness about the needs of the elderly, which is the order’s real charism.
The Little Sisters won a major victory in their case, formally known as Zubik v. Burwell, in May, when the Supreme Court vacated previous rulings and sent it back to lower courts, in a move widely seen as a signal that the court wants a compromise solution.
The sisters were on hand in Toronto to receive the Gaudium et Spes award, the highest honor bestowed by the Knights of Columbus and presented only in special circumstances. The first recipient was Mother Teresa of Calcutta in 1992, who’s slated to be named a saint by Pope Francis in a Sept. 4 canonization ceremony.
The following are excerpts from the Crux interview with Veit and MacKay.
Crux: What does getting this award from the Knights of Columbus mean to you?
MacKay: We feel very privileged. It’s awesome, because when we heard that Mother Teresa got the award, we felt, ‘Wow!’ We’re very humbled.
Good company to be in, right?
MacKay: Yes! Like I said, we feel humbled. We don’t know how it happened, but it’s beautiful. We love the Knights, and they’re very kind to the Little Sisters of the Poor. All over the country, they help us.
Obviously, this is not an award exclusively, or even primarily, for the stand you’ve taken on the contraception mandates. It’s about your entire life and work. But is there a sense in which this award comes at an especially important time, because this hasn’t been an easy period for you?
MacKay: It’s been a hard year. I go out to churches every Saturday and Sunday and talk at parishes, because that’s how we get our money. We’re a mendicant order. A lot of people at church will ask us [about the mandates dispute.] One morning I was having breakfast with a priest and he said, ‘You know, I don’t agree with you!’ I said, ‘That’s alright, Father.’ I prayed I would say the right thing.
What did you say to him?
MacKay: ‘I said, that’s alright, Father, you have your opinion.’ He laughed and said, ‘I’ll probably ask you to take my mother, won’t I?’ [A reference to the sisters’ reputation for elder care.] I said, ‘Yeah, that’s what I was afraid you’d say!’ But mostly, people have been 100 percent behind us.
We’ve been asked these questions a lot, where we would never have had any of that before.
Does this sort of award strengthen your hand in the court fight?
Veit: I think most of the awards we’ve gotten have come after the main fight was over. I think this is more of a celebratory victory lap.
Where does the case stand?
Veit: The attorneys from HHS and a couple of other government agencies are looking for suggestions of how a solution can be worked out. Our attorneys at Beckett [the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public interest law firm representing the sisters] are very happy that they’ve asked for suggestions, because we feel there are many ways it can be worked out and it’s a promising sign to us that they’re admitting that and asking for suggestions.
The interpretation when the Supreme Court decision came out was that it was an invitation to compromise. You believe it’s playing out that way?
Veit: Yes, we do feel that way. We’re very optimistic, especially because it was a unanimous decision to vacate the decision of the lower court. That was a huge victory for us. Now we feel like we’re in a safe place, because they can’t fine us and the Supreme Court was very clear to the lower courts that they have to find a solution. We’re actually still hopeful this can be worked out without having to go back to the lower courts.
Is that a mixed blessing? It’s raised your visibility and probably opened new doors, but you’re not at all a political outfit.
MacKay: No, what’s ironic about all this attention we’ve gotten is that our charism is humility!
Do you ever get tired of having to answer questions about the mandates case?
MacKay: Sometimes when I go to churches I do wonder what they’re going to ask me. In certain churches, you kind of get the feeling they’re going to ask you something. I don’t talk about it from the pulpit, I talk about the Little Sisters and the elderly we take care of. But, these days you always have to be ready in case it comes up.
Veit: There was a point where I was just weary of the whole thing, but I received a really special grace last year when I attended the Napa Institute. [Note: A conference center in Napa, California, that describes its mission as preparing Catholic leaders to meet the challenges of a secular culture.] I was really at a point of saying, ‘God, why did you pick us?’
While I was the Napa Institute, Leonardo Defilippis of St. Luke Productions performed his one-man play on the Curé d’Ars, who lived at the same time as our foundress during the French Revolution. As a result, the French Revolution figured heavily in the play. It was a grace for me, because I said, ‘Lord, so this is why you picked us.’
We have this history going back to the very beginnings of our congregation of dealing with situations of religious intolerance. Among communities of religious women in the United States, we have a longer history than many of them, a deeper and more international history, and it’s in our DNA.
So, I said this is just my turn to step up. I’ve been going on that ever since.
Did getting involved on the mandates issue help or hurt your fundraising efforts?
MacKay: I find that people want to support us. I get letters sometimes when they read an article and they’ll send a donation, saying, ‘We want to support you.’ People here have said they want to support us.
Has it helped generate new vocations?
Veit: I can’t say that yet. We do have one novice who only heard about us because of the publicity and went on-line and researched us, but I think it’s a little too early to judge that. One thing I’ve discovered is that college students are fairly oblivious to what’s happening on the level of national news.
For instance, we went to the Focus conference in January and a lot of the kids had never even heard of the case, and that was two months before the Supreme Court decision.
Is it sort of liberating when that happens, and for once you just talk about the Little Sisters?
Veit: Oh, yes, it’s liberating, but it was also an eye-opener about how unaware young people can be. I do think that eventually, if I can put it this way, we’d like to ride the wave of publicity in a way that can give greater exposure to what we’re really about and to the real heart of our vocation. Hopefully, the heightened publicity will open doors for us with young people.
In Washington, D.C., where I live, that has definitely happened. We have contacts now with some of the young adult groups and movements in the city, many more than before.
Do you find that some people seek you out because of the mandates fight, and then as they get to know more about you they become drawn in?
Veit: I’ve found that even with some of the national news people who’ve interviewed me. Many actually have no idea what we do, but we chose with the Becket Fund to do all the media interviews leading up to the arguments at our house. We put a lot of time and effort into exposing them to what we really are all about.
Were you there when Pope Francis visited the community last September?
MacKay: No, I happened to be in the Bronx, and they e-mailed us and told us the Holy Father was coming, but I was already on my way to St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
You only had an hour’s advance notice?
MacKay: They [the sisters] didn’t even have that. They were at the Mass, and they told them they had to leave. When they tried to leave, the Secret Service wouldn’t let them out. They said, ‘We have to go out, we have to go back to the home, the Holy Father is coming!’
What was the effect of that visit on the community?
MacKay: A lot of our young ones still talk about it. Two weeks ago, we had a profession in Queens and we had a young girl become a sister, and she talked about it. She said that when she looked into his eyes, there was just something there … so peaceful, so understanding, and he was so beautiful with us.
One sister was 102, and he was wonderful with her. She’s from Colombia, and he said, ‘Oh, you must really like Colombian wine.’ She said ‘No, no, Colombian coffee!’ She wouldn’t let him get her!
Obviously, in part the visit was a gesture of support in the mandates fight. Did it have any effect?
MacKay: I think it did. A lot of people just thought it was so beautiful that the Holy Father took the time to go there. We were hoping, but we never thought it would really happen. I was stationed there are one time, and I thought, ‘Too bad I’m not still here!’
What else do you hope will come of all this?
Veit: One of the things I feel very hopeful about is that I hope our increased publicity has raised awareness about the needs of the elderly in society, not just our ministry but their broader needs.
I was thrilled because the very last words of the Holy Father at World Youth Day to the volunteers, before he left, was telling them one of the prerequisites for young people to prepare for the next World Youth Day is to go out and connect with their grandparents. That just totally thrilled me.