(CLICK HERE for slide show)
(CLICK HERE for the Belgian Embassy’s coverage of Her Royal Highness’ visit)
The Residents and Little Sisters of Jeanne Jugan Residence in Washington, D.C. had a very special visitor on Monday, June 27—a real-life princess! Her Royal Highness Princess Mathilde of Belgium paid a visit to our D.C. home as part of an economic mission to the United States with her husband, Crown Prince Phillippe.
A princess doesn’t just drop in, however … Her Royal Highness’ 45-minute visit on Monday was the culmination of a month’s planning, several meetings and walk-throughs with staff from the Belgian embassy and the U.S. State Department, as well as rehearsals for our speakers and choir. The result? A wonderfully relaxed, perfectly executed and mutually enriching 45 minutes together!
The Princess and her entourage arrived right on schedule at 9:15 a.m. They were welcomed by Mother Benedict, local superior, and Mother Provincial Loraine Marie Clare, who led them through the front door to take a brief look at the exhibit panels prepared for the canonization of Jeanne Jugan. The press corps—mostly Belgian, with a couple of American photographers in the mix—followed their every move.
Applause broke out as Her Royal Highness entered the auditorium and took her place at the front of the room. Mother Benedict spoke on behalf of everyone present—a mix of Little Sisters, Residents, staff, A.J.J. members and volunteers (and the media of course). Maria Noronha, a Resident and retired teacher, presented the Princess with a bouquet of flowers. Leonard Donatelli, who had just celebrated his 90th birthday the day before, gave her a lovely tatted necklace that had been made by a Resident in our home Indianapolis. Leonard was wearing the medal he had been awarded by the Belgian government for his service in the Army Air Force during World War II.
Genevieve Murphy, a long-time friend of the home, presented the Princess with a large basket of gifts for her children: a hand-knit sweater for each one—thanks to the talents of our Residents in Richmond—T-shirts with Washington motifs, postcards, etc. Princess Mathilde seemed really happy with the sweaters, and explained that her oldest daughter—“but not her mother”—is learning how to knit!
A choir made up of Residents, Little Sisters, volunteers and employees sang the “official” hymn for the canonization of Jeanne Jugan, Sister and Servant of the Poor. This hymn was chosen because there is a direct link between Belgium and the canonization of our foundress. Jeanne Jugan was declared a saint the same day as Damien de Veuster, a native of Belgium who devoted his life to the lepers of Molokai, Hawaii. Princess Mathilde seemed to be familiar with Saint Jeanne Jugan and was moved by all that we shared about the foundations of our work.
Her Royal Highness really took her time greeting each person individually. She listened attentively as one Resident recounted her experiences under an oppressive political regime and her journey to the United States … She admired an Indian Resident’s sari, admitting she is too tall to ever wear one … The Princess spoke Italian to a Resident from that country and a little Spanish to a Mexican friend of the home … She caught on rather quickly when one of the gentlemen got in line to greet her a second time; generating a room full of laughter! … Each person had their moment with the Princess, each one received and listened to as if they were the only one present. Her graciousness and attentiveness impressed us all!
Believe it or not, there was still enough time for a quick tour of the home, so Mother Benedict led the Princess and her entourage to the chapel, and then on to physical therapy, the beauty shop and a brief stop in the French café. Maybe it will be renamed it the Belgian café to commemorate the Royal visit!
One of the most touching moments of the day occurred toward the end of the Princess’ quick tour of the home as she encountered a very special Resident. Mrs. E., who speaks little English and doesn’t usually participate in events in the home—at least in the way everyone else does … As the Princess and her entourage moved from spot to spot, Mrs. E. latched on to the back of the group, a petite figure in a tiny wheelchair. The Princess quickly caught on, smiling, “I think someone is following us,” she observed with a smile. At the end of the tour, Princess Mathilde bent down to shake the old woman’s hand and then Mrs. E. applauded her!” It was a charming moment.
Just as the clock was about to strike 10 a.m.—the designated departure time—Princess Mathilde and her entourage were headed out the front door—but not before embracing Sister Marie Mathilde, at 98 years the eldest member of the community. The Residents and staff had gathered outside the front door and waved the Princess off, as the community sang, Be With Us Mary Along the Way, a tradition for Little Sister comings and goings.
An enchanted day was not quite over, however. Mother Provincial and Mother Benedict were invited to an evening reception hosted by the Prince and Princess at the Belgian Embassy. In a very gracious ambiance they were happy to meet Prince Phillippe and the Belgian Prime Minister. They thanked Princess Mathilde for the joy she brought to everyone at Jeanne Jugan Residence and assured her and the Prince of the prayers of the Little Sisters.
Many thanks to all who helped make the Princess’ visit such a wonderful moment in our Little Sister American history! We owe special recognition to Professor Kurt Martens of Catholic University, a native of Belgium, who had recommended our home to Belgian Embassy as a possible visit site for the Princess, and who assisted the Little Sisters every step of the way.