NEW HAVEN – The Knights of Columbus presented its highest award to the Little Sisters of the Poor for “standing up for religious liberty of all” at its 134th annual international convention Aug. 2 in Toronto.
Supreme Knight Carl Anderson presented the Gaudium et Spes Award to Mother Loraine Marie Maguire, superior of the sisters’ Baltimore Province, at a dinner attended by 2,000-plus convention participants.
In his letter of announcement to Mother Loraine in June, Mr. Anderson cited the “heroic work” of the order in serving the elderly poor as one reason for the recognition. But going further, he stated that “people of all faiths find ourselves even more indebted” to the religious community “for your courage in standing firm in refusing to allow the U.S. government to coerce your community into violating its conscience and religious beliefs.
“The Little Sisters have been intrepid champions of our first and most cherished liberty, religious freedom,” wrote Mr. Anderson.
The Little Sisters gained national attention when they defied the Affordable Care Act known as Obamacare by refusing to sign a form that would have included contraception, sterilization and abortifacient coverage in their employee health plan. The government threatened to fine the Little Sisters for their refusal to comply.
In response, the Little Sisters filed a lawsuit against the Department of Health and Human Services three years ago in an appeal that went to the United States Supreme Court. The Knights filed a brief on the sisters’ behalf and helped fund the attorneys from the Becket Fund who defended them.
Last May, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the government cannot fine the Little Sisters; and it ordered the lower courts to help the government choose an alternative method of providing free contraceptives to women without requiring the participation of religious nonprofits and their health plans, such as the residences run by the Little Sisters of the Poor.
“We Little Sisters are honored and profoundly humbled to have been chosen to receive the Gaudium et Spes Award,” said Mother Loraine in accepting the award.
“Although we never would have chosen to become the public face of conscientious objection to the HHS Mandate,” she said, “we felt compelled to take a stand for the sake of the elderly residents we serve.
“Our only desire has been to ensure that we will be able to continue to care for the elderly poor with dignity and love, just as we have for over 175 years,” she stated. “Together with our residents, we have had the honor of witnessing to the Culture of Life in the Church and in the world.”
The Congregation of the Little Sisters of the Poor was approved by the Church in 1852, but began in France 13 years earlier when Jeanne Jugan, now a saint, took into her home an elderly, blind and paralyzed woman who was freezing in the cold. Soon other women joined Jeanne Jugan to form a community that cared for the elderly poor. The order is now in 30 countries.
The community has continued the mission of St. Jeanne Jugan in Connecticut since 1901. The sisters operated St. Andrew’s Home for the Elderly near St. Raphael’s Hospital from 1902-71, when they opened and moved to St. Joseph’s Residence in Enfield.
Sister Frances Elizabeth MacKay, development director for St. Joseph’s Residence, was among a dozen sisters who accompanied Mother Loraine to the convention.
Sister Frances said a highlight for her was carrying a relic of Saint Jeanne Jugan in a procession at a Mass of the convention’s closing day.
She said the experience made her feel “just so proud to be a Little Sister of the Poor because it affirmed the whole life that I chose. It also made me feel grateful as a Little Sister of the Poor to know that our foundress was being honored because this was something that she would not have wanted.”
Named for the Vatican II document Gaudiem et Spes (Joy and Hope), the award is the highest honor given by the 1.9 million-member fraternal organization. The gold medal and honorarium of $100,000 is awarded only in special circumstances to individuals of exceptional merit, who have made outstanding contributions to both the Catholic church and to society.
Among the previous eleven recipients are Blessed Mother Teresa of Kolkata, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, Cardinal John O’Connor of New York and Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, an international federation of communities for people with developmental disabilities.