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Little Sisters of the Poor leave a lasting legacy of love and joy in Denver

When Sister Joseph Marie speaks about Mullen Home for the Aged Poor, it’s as if she’s talking about a family member. And it makes perfect sense, because given her storied history with the beloved institution, that’s essentially what Mullen Home is to her — family.

The kind and unassuming Little Sister of the Poor has been running around like a busy bee since her Order announced last month that they would be withdrawing her and her fellow Little Sisters from Mullen Home. These women have humbly served the elderly at Mullen Home for over 100 years and are foundational to the Catholic community in Denver. As they prepare to say farewell, Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila will be celebrating a special Mass in their honor at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception Oct. 25. All are invited to attend.

Even amid a tragic situation, the Little Sisters have remained faithful to their vocation with the utmost care and attention. Over the past month, they have ensured that every one of the 40 residents who were living at Mullen Home at the time of the closure announcement has been placed in a new home. In addition to local re-housing, there were a few cases where Sister Joseph Marie and the Little Sisters funded and accompanied residents as they’ve traveled to other nursing homes served by the Little Sisters around the country.

Joy emanates from Sister Joseph Marie at every turn. Even so, she occasionally chokes up and fights back tears when talking about the closure of Mullen Home.

“I love my vocation. If I ever had to do it again, I’d do it the same way. But it is going to be hard to say goodbye to Denver,” she told the Denver Catholic. “I have a lot of roots here.”

Those roots run deep. She grew up in a house just three blocks away from Mullen Home, in Denver’s West Highland neighborhood. In their childhood, she and her five sisters were frequent visitors to the home, but they became much more than that as the years went on.

Sister Joseph Marie grew up right down the street from Mullen Home, and discovered her vocation as a Little Sister while visiting with and serving the residents as a little girl. (Photo by Daniel Petty)

“My mom was one of the first cooks here who worked here, and she worked here for 40 years or so,” she said. “My sister worked here for about 50 years. She worked here as activity director and in the laundry and as a CNA. All of my sisters either volunteered or worked here.”

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The Mullen Home community has been a mainstay in Sister Joseph Marie’s family’s spiritual life as well. She has fond memories of attending Christmas Mass as a child in the beautiful chapel. Her parents died at their family home down the street, but they were buried from Mullen Home, and there was a memorial tree planted in their honor. One of her sisters was also buried from Mullen Home. Another of her sister’s future husband was the nephew of one of the Little Sisters who served there while they were growing up, and they were married for 50 years.

Fittingly (and providentially), Mullen Home is also where Sister Joseph Marie discovered her vocation as a Little Sister of the Poor. When she was young, she would pester her mom to allow her to accompany her older sisters to visit the residents. Eventually her mom relented, and with the permission of the Mother Superior, agreed to let her go — under the stipulation that she stay in the kitchen with her and the Little Sisters.

“I would come on Saturdays, my sisters would be up in the infirmary, feeding the residents and talking to them and just working. I’d be in the kitchen with my mom buttering the bread and toasting the bread, and I didn’t like it!” she said with a laugh. “Any time she turned her back, I’d walk up the back stairwell and go up to see the residents and I’d start talking to them and I just loved it. My sisters would say, ‘you better go downstairs, mama’s going to be looking for you, and she’s going to be mad!’ But the [Little Sister] said, ‘Oh, that’s okay. I have my eye out on her. It’ll be good.’ So that was one of the initial sparks of my vocation.”

Over time, Sister Joseph Marie became attracted to the spirituality of the Little Sisters, in addition to their selfless service to the elderly. She remembers observing the Little Sister whose nephew ended up marrying her sister out in the garden as a girl and being captivated by her prayerfulness.

“She’d be out in the garden praying her [Divine Office] book. And I would sometimes walk around and I’d see her with that prayerful image,” the nun recalled. “And I said to myself, ‘Gee, that’s beautiful. I wish I could do that.’”

Sister Joseph Marie’s vocation has taken her all over the world — Peru, Colombia, Spain, France, Britain and more. She returned to Denver five years ago to serve at Mullen Home.  It’s true that each of Sister Joseph Marie’s assignments have been a blessing for her — but there’s clearly something special, something different about Mullen Home.

Mullen Home has been a peaceful and spiritual comfort in Denver for over 105 years. (Photo by Aaron Lambert)

“It’s just such a family spirit,” she said. “The residents are special.”

From picnics to processions, to bingo and bazaars, and even sharing in the final moments of life — the list of joys that serving at Mullen Home has brought Sister Joseph Marie seems endless: “The joys of making the residents happy. All the parties that we’ve had. The special moments at the end of life, being able to be with them, and enjoying the interaction with our community, because our community is the strength of our life.”

This joy and sense of belonging — and yes, even holiness — can be felt not just by the residents, but by the staff, too.

“I’ll never forget the sisters,” said social worker Gabrielle Waterhouse. “I’ll never forget some of the words they’ve said to me, some of the things I’ve observed while being here. Even with the residents, the way they treated the residents so kindly with their hearts on their hands, it’s unforgettable.”

“The Little Sisters will have a lasting impact on me,” said Mullen Home administrator Lynae Jones. “I’m not Catholic, I’m not very religious. But just being in this environment, it just makes you feel very spiritual. To see their work and their mission and their vision and the way they care for the residents, which they truly were the elderly poor, they just put everything into them, their heart, their self, everything. It’s a passion I’ve never seen before.”

Since 1917, the Little Sisters have maintained a humble and quiet presence in Denver serving the residents of Mullen Home. They are loved by the surrounding community and, in a very real way, have always been a peaceful and spiritual comfort in Denver. Their absence will certainly be felt.

“When this place closes and the sisters leave…all of us have felt the holes in our hearts,” said volunteer coordinator Cindy Charlton. “The residents and staff, everybody has felt the holes. But when when they leave this community, the whole community will feel the hole.”

Sister Joseph Marie with Mullen Home staff members Gabrielle Waterhouse (left) and Cindy Charlton (right). (Photo by Aaron Lambert)

Under her vow of obedience, Sister Joseph Marie and the other Little Sisters will follow their vocation to serve at some of the 23 other homes around the country. Sister Joseph Marie will be relocating to the Holy Family residence in St. Paul, Minn.

In addition to giving thanks to God for the opportunity to serve at Mullen Home, she expressed her gratitude for the staff and volunteers that have worked at Mullen Home over the years, and also for the generosity of donors who have donated to the mission and wellbeing of Mullen Home.

“We are so grateful for everything. Without them, we couldn’t have done it,” Sister Joseph Marie said. “And we are very grateful for our residents, because without them we could not be here either. They’re our main reason that we’re here.

Little Sisters of the Poor Farewell Mass
Tuesday, Oct. 25, 5:30 p.m.
Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception
Watch the livestream: littlesistersofthepoordenver.org or archden.org/livestream

Aaron Lambert
Aaron Lambert
Aaron is the Managing Editor for the Denver Catholic.
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