Little Sisters of the Poor to receive 2016 Evangelium Vitae Medal

Every year on Respect Life Sunday, the first Sunday of October, the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture announces the recipient of the Notre Dame Evangelium Vitae Medal.  On October 4, the Center announced that the Little Sisters of the Poor and their Mother Provincial, Sister Loraine Marie Maguire, will receive the 2016 award.

Founded in France in 1839 by Saint Jeanne Jugan, the Little Sisters of the Poor are an international congregation of Roman Catholic religious women.  Their mission, according to their website, is “to offer the neediest elderly of every race and religion a home where they will be welcomed as Christ, cared for as family and accompanied with dignity until God calls them to himself.”  Today, the Little Sisters serve more than 13,000 elderly poor in 31 countries and have 30 homes in the United States.

Although St. Jeanne Jugan said, “Little, very little, be very little before God,” the Little Sisters of the Poor have come to prominence recently due to litigation over the federal government’s HHS mandate.  The mandate would force the Little Sisters to permit the government to use their healthcare coverage to provide employees with contraceptives and abortifacient drugs and devices.  Led by Maguire, the Little Sisters filed a class action lawsuit in 2012 and have been granted temporary reprieve until the Supreme Court rules on their case.

In an article entitled, “The Little Sisters make history with the Gospel of Life,” by Kathryn Jean Lopez published on Angelus, O. Carter Snead, William P. and Hazel B. White Director of the Center for Ethics and Culture, commented on the threat to the Sisters’ religious liberty.  “It is clear to me that the HHS Mandate imposes a substantial burden on the Little Sisters by commandeering their health plan and transforming it into a delivery system for contraceptives and drugs that may cause the death of newly conceived human beings.  In so doing, the government prevents the Little Sisters from pursuing their vocation to the poor in a way that integrates and bears public witness to the truths they affirm about the dignity of human life and the gift of human procreation.”

During his recent visit to the United States, Pope Francis made an unscheduled visit on September 23 to the Little Sisters in Washington, D.C.  Father Federico Lombardi, SJ, the Vatican spokesman, told reporters in Washington that the pope’s visit was intended as a sign of support for the Little Sisters’ lawsuit.

Ryan Madison, Associate Director at the Center for Ethics and Culture, explained to the Rover the purpose of the Evangelium Vitae medal. “The Notre Dame Evangelium Vitae award is named in honor of Saint John Paul II’s great encyclical letter, which proclaims the absolute dignity of every human life from conception to natural death,” he said.  “This award honors those who have worked tirelessly and, unfortunately, often without recognition, to build the culture of life called for by John Paul II.”

The medal was first awarded in 2011, and previous recipients include Richard Doerflinger, Associate Director of the USCCB’s Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities; Helen M. Alvaré, Associate Professor of Law at George Mason University; Mother Agnes Mary Donovan and the Sisters of Life; Congressman Chris Smith, co-chair of the Bipartisan Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, and his wife, Marie Smith, director of the Parliamentary Network for Critical Issues; and Carl Anderson and the Knights of Columbus.

During a banquet at Notre Dame on April 9, 2016, a specially commissioned medal and $10,000 prize will be presented to the Little Sisters.

In the press announcement on the Center’s website, Snead explained the reason for honoring the sisters.  “For more than 175 years, the Little Sisters of the Poor have dedicated their lives to humble service of the most vulnerable among us,” he said.

“Their work and witness embody the goods at the heart of the Evangelium Vitae Medal. Their unwavering defense of the unborn in the HHS mandate litigation, alongside their longstanding work to care for the elderly poor, offers a beautiful and powerful witness to the unique, inviolable dignity of every person, from conception to natural death,” Snead said.  “Their work is a testament to the radical solidarity and hospitality at the core of the Gospel of Life.”

Madison added, “The work of the Little Sisters, devoted as they are to caring for the elderly, is invaluable in building up this culture [of life]. They remind us that no human life, no matter how dependent, infirm, and in need of care is ever undignified or unworthy of love. We are proud that Notre Dame continues to proclaim the Gospel of Life by recognizing the outstanding efforts of the Little Sisters.”

Notre Dame President Reverend John Jenkins, CSC, said, “We are delighted to award this medal to the Little Sisters of the Poor to honor them for their inspiring efforts to build a Culture of Life, where every member of the human family is welcomed and embraced.  They are most deserving of this year’s Evangelium Vitae Medal.”

Sophomore Nicole O’Leary, who worked with the Little Sisters of the Poor in their Boston home this summer, told the Rover, “[The Little Sisters] have become wonderful and much-needed witnesses of perseverance and fidelity to Church teaching in the face of formidable obstacles.  Working with the Sisters is truly entering into a ‘school of love’ in which it is impossible not to want to imitate their humility and their deep compassion for those they serve.”

O’Leary continued, “The Little Sisters recognize that the needy elderly make an indispensable contribution through their very lives, their capacity to love, their joys, and their sufferings. In each Resident, they are aware of the presence of Christ, and thus they care for these elderly members of their families as they would care for Christ Himself.”

In Lopez’s article, Snead remarked on the continuity between Evangelium Vitae and the Church today.  “Pope Francis’s reflections on the nature of persons and human flourishing go to the heart of the matter. His powerful account of persons as embodied, situated in a relationship of solidarity and reciprocal indebtedness to one another, with chosen and unchosen obligations of care and concern, provides the necessary anthropological groundwork to build a culture of life.  

Snead concluded, “The Little Sisters of the Poor embody this beautiful vision of human dignity and what our shared life together can and should be.”

Stephanie Reuter is a sophomore majoring in PLS and theology and living in Welsh Family Hall.  She first learned about the Little Sisters through her sister Caroline, who completed an SSLP at their home in Mobile, Alabama. The sisters not only taught her how to roll elderly women’s hair and make hospital corners, but they also threw her an awesome 20th birthday party. Stephanie’s not that cool, but you can contact her anyway at