It is just before noon and from rooms they emerge in ones and twos. Their hair is peppered with silver and their gait is slow and unsteady. While some use walking aids, a few others come in wheelchairs. Scrupulously clean they are and they walk with dignity. Whatever medications they have to take are distributed [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

The Little Sisters’ one big family


It is just before noon and from rooms they emerge in ones and twos. Their hair is peppered with silver and their gait is slow and unsteady. While some use walking aids, a few others come in wheelchairs.

Scrupulously clean they are and they walk with dignity.

Just a little bit more: A nun gives a helping hand. Pic by Athula Devapriya

Whatever medications they have to take are distributed efficiently and then it is time for the meal, brought in dishes wheeled in on trolleys. Simple and healthy the dishes seem, the rice, two vegetables, a mallun and meat or fish, with the aroma clearly sending a signal that the food is delicious.

It is lunch time at the St. Mary’s Home for the Elderly run by the Little Sisters of the Poor off Darley Road in Maradana. Lunch like all other meals is served in large spic and span halls with tables set for four.

Touching scenes pass before my eyes……a man serving food to his wife, before serving himself; a woman coaxing her neighbour to eat a bit more rice; and those who cannot feed themselves being gently spoon-fed their nutrition.

Silent has been the service rendered by the Little Sisters of the Poor across the world, since their ministry began way back on a dreary winter’s day in 1839 with an act of kindness by Founder Jeanne Jugan in the coastal town of Saint Servan in France.
The beginnings were humble, with Jeanne who herself was impoverished, unable to witness the sad plight of a poor, homeless, partially-paralysed and blind woman, making a life-changing decision to help her. She carried her to her rented room up a winding staircase, laid her on her own bed and shared her meagre food with her. There was no turning back for Jeanne. She had found her vocation.

Her counsel, which she would later pass onto novices who decided to follow in her footsteps, holds true even today in faraway Sri Lanka: “You will find Christ in prayer, in community and in the poor.”

It was on December 7, 1887, that the Little Sisters disembarked at the Port of Colombo, setting about their “business” of looking after the aged poorest of the poor. Earlier on November 18, 1887, then Archbishop of the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka, Rev. Christopher Ernest Bonjean had accepted the foundation of a home for elders.

When we visit the St. Mary’s Home some renovation work at the simple but beautiful chapel within the tranquil and serene premises has just been completed and a few nuns, with the sleeves of their robes rolled up, and staff are busy cleaning the floors.

It is a day like just another at the home. While a few other nuns have gone on their collection rounds, others are tending to the 98 aged poor, including a few couples, under their care. Explaining that they take the aged from among the poorest who have no one to look after them or whose relatives just cannot afford to keep them, a nun who gently declines to be identified says that there are no barriers of race or religion.

“We take in anyone if there is room,” she says, although currently there is a long waiting list. Those who come under the care of the Little Sisters of the Poor are provided a roof over their heads, comfortable accommodation, healthy meals and a lot of love and care. 

Where does the funding come from? The Little Sisters of the Poor are fully dependent on public charity and rain or sunshine, every morning, a group of them would go on “collection”.

What Archbishop Bonjean said back in 1888 is applicable even today: “The Sisters neither have, nor can their rules have, any fixed income. Like the birds of the air ‘which the heavenly Father feedeth’ and the lilies of the field which God clotheth, they rely entirely for the maintenance of their poor upon the Providence of God and the help of the charitable and for the sake of the poor of Christ, they make themselves beggars.”

And so, the Little Sisters of the Poor, go abegging seeking alms, from house to house, office to office and shop to shop. “We take anything that people may give us including food, dry rations and used clothing,” the nun says, adding that “we are sure God will provide”. Donors also come to their door as word has spread about the service being rendered by them.
The 17 nuns at the St. Mary’s Home work side by side with the 36 paid staff and volunteers who come in, as one family to care for those whom circumstances have put here.

Some of them have been here for as long as 20 years, with the oldest resident being a woman of 98. “If the residents have family or friends, we encourage them to take them for a day or weekend to their homes. All those who are unable to do so due to being in dire financial straits, we invite to come over here and spend time with their elderly,” the nun says.

The most poignant, of course, is that when death comes a-knocking at the door of a resident, he or she is never left alone in the final hours of waning life. When “pain and anguish wring the brow”, as the poet said in a different context, these ministering angels keep watch over the aged poor, day and night, holding their wan hands or gently touching their foreheads.
While the edict “till death do us part” seems not only to apply to newlyweds but also to the strong bond between the nuns of the St. Mary’s Home and their beloved aged, the final goodbye is also accorded to them by the nuns according to the religious beliefs of or wishes expressed by the resident who is no more.

What greater love can there be, is the feeling as we bid goodbye to the Little Sisters leaving them to their daily tasks.

125 years of service

A thanksgiving service for the 125 years of dedication by the Little Sisters of the Poor of the St. Mary’s Home for the Elderly was held on October 12. The service was presided over by the Apostolic Nuncio, Rt. Rev. Dr. Joseph Spiteri.

Generous donors who wish to help the home, may please call 011-2693878 or e-mail: They could also write to: The Mother Superior, Little Sisters of the Poor, Home for the Elderly, 204, T.B. Jayah Mawatha, Colombo 10.

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