By Chloe Burkhart

Living arrangements at the Little Sisters of the Poor in Brighton Heights mimic a household environment, to encourage a sense of community and familial bonds.

The Little Sisters of the Poor is anything but “little.” Run by 13 Roman Catholic sisters and a slew of volunteers, the nursing home is a perfect example of the true difference a community can make to an individual’s emotional health.

Walking into the Little Sisters of the Poor in Brighton Heights does not feel like entering a conventional “nursing home.” The facility’s day-to-day activities and upkeep continue to run smoothly, despite allegations arising earlier this year that the home’s chaplain, Rev. John A. Geinzer, committed child sexual abuse.

Here, for residents, the stereotypical hospital-like qualities of a nursing home are overhauled and “family” is a consistent undertone. Guests are greeted with gentle smiles and good spirits. The atmosphere contains an aura of calm and serenity. It’s like visiting a relative’s home.

Sister Dorothy pictured with Ruth Blaney, a resident of the nursing home run by Little Sisters of the Poor, an international congregation that opened its first home in Pittsburgh in the late 1800s. Photo courtesy of Little Sisters of the Poor.

The story of this international congregation begins in France in 1839 with the work of Saint Jeanne Jugan, founder of Little Sisters of the Poor. One day, she came across a woman on the street who was blind, picked her up, and took her home with her. After that, she began taking in and caring for the poor and elderly who couldn’t find refuge elsewhere. Jugan, canonized for her dedication to serving the poor, and her work inspired the creation of homes to continue her mission in over 30 countries.

Little Sisters of the Poor opened its first home in Pittsburgh in 1872 through the efforts of Bishop Michael Domenec and seven Irish sisters sent by the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul. After just 13 years in the city, the number of seniors the group served far surpassed the number it could adequately care for. After erecting a new home on Penn Avenue, the sisters eventually moved to their present location on Benton Avenue. Currently, the organization serves 93 residents older than 65 who qualify for Medicaid.

Housing options for residents range from a fully staffed nursing home to completely independent apartment units. Apartments are suited for one or two people and each door has a personal touch from its residents: a floral wreath; a tassel hanging from the doorknob.
Each of the home’s four nursing units, or “households,” is home to
12 residents. This terminology is just one of the many ways Little Sisters of the Poor creates community and familial bonds among its residents.

“Most nursing homes call their floors either units or floors, but Little Sisters uses ‘households’ because it connects to their mission of making a home for the elderly, not a facility,” said Kathleen Bowser, Development Director of the home.

Research shows that a sense of community is crucial to the overall happiness of human beings. The use of “households” to describe living quarters, fosters emotional well-being. In these households, each resident is provided with a bedroom. There is a living room, dining room and a shared kitchen space where residents often cook breakfast.
“The physical design of the nursing building was to mimic a real house…[and] the word choices used here amongst the Sisters, staff and volunteers also follow that philosophy,” said Bowser. Nurses are constantly on duty, but their stations are discreet to eliminate a sterile, hospital feel.

Down the home’s many corridors, residents filter in and out of medical offices of primary care physicians, eye doctors and dentists. There’s a music room, where residential choirs and bands meet and residents can access stacks of CDs. This room is testament to the power of music therapy for residents living with dementia and other cognitive issues: Bowser recalls a resident with memory loss related to dementia who could not speak, yet was able to sing along to songs in the music room.

Another open space is home to exercise equipment and card tables and its windows overlook miles of Northside roadways. The staff says the building’s on-site beauty salon is always crowded with ladies getting curlers put in. There’s a coffee shop, a gift shop selling crafts made by residents, a chapel offering daily Mass, a computer room and even a designated space for residents to satisfy their Wii Bowling addictions.
All of this is possible through generous donations from the Pittsburgh community and Collecting, a tradition rooted in the early days of Jugan’s congregation. Roaming the streets of France with a basket in hand, she collected food to help the people she cared for.

Sister Margaret Mary and Sister Monique unload the Little
Sisters’ collecting van full of donated produce. Photo courtesy of Little Sisters of the Poor.

The Little Sisters in Pittsburgh used to collect using horse-drawn carriages but have since transitioned to collecting in vans. They gather items such as personal hygiene products and paper products during church collections and outside of the local Giant Eagle. A full list of items needed is available on the home’s website