On Monday, Jan. 22, the French founder of Emmaüs, abbé Pierre, died at the age of 94.  --  The Financial Times (UK) called him "[a] striking figure, with his white beard framed by the black cape . . . repeatedly compared with Mother Teresa and voted France's most popular personality for his tireless campaigning" in favor of the destitute and the homeless.[1]  --  His obituary in Le Monde (Paris), translated below, noted that "[h]e died at the very moment when public authorities [in France] wish to render effective a principle for which he fought all his life: the right to housing."[2] ...



By Delphine Strauss

Financial Times (UK)
January 22, 2007


Abbé Pierre, the French Catholic priest who gave up his wealth to champion the homeless for more than 50 years, has died aged 94.

He became a national icon during the freezing winter of 1954, when he appealed on radio for food and shelter to stop people dying on the streets. The broadcast unleashed a flood of generosity, later called the "uprising of goodwill."

A striking figure, with his white beard framed by the black cape a fireman gave him that winter, he was repeatedly compared with Mother Teresa and voted France's most popular personality for his tireless campaigning.

He founded the hostel movement Emmaüs, now present in 40 countries, after meeting a suicidal ex-convict in 1949, and funded its expansion by the then-novel method of collecting and selling secondhand clothes.

Yet the problems that he fought still top France's political agenda. An assertive Christmas campaign, erecting tent camps for rough sleepers across the country, led presidential candidates to pledge more help for the homeless this month, and leaders of all parties paid tribute to Abbé Pierre on Monday.

"France is losing a great figure, a conscience, an embodiment of goodness," said President Jacques Chirac, while Ségolène Royal, the Socialist party presidential candidate, said: "Abbé Pierre's long cry of anger against poverty must not die out."

Born in 1912 to a family of silk merchants in Lyons, Henri Grouès gave his inheritance to charity and entered a monastery at the age of 19.

He adopted the name Abbé Pierre while serving in the wartime resistance, where he forged papers and helped Jews escape into Switzerland, for which he later received the Légion d'Honneur. He was arrested by the Gestapo in 1944, but escaped to Algeria.

Despite ill health that forced him to leave monastic life, he survived a series of near-fatal accidents, including a fall into an alpine crevasse during his resistance activities, and a shipwreck on a trip to South America in 1963.

A brief stint as a deputy in the French parliament, after the liberation, proved unsuccessful. Abbé Pierre was soon at odds with his Christian Democrat party, accusing it of supporting colonial wars and denouncing "the atrocities attributed to French troops in Indochina."

After the turmoil of the 1954 campaign, he retired from the media spotlight but took center stage once more in the 1980s, becoming a national voice for human rights in a myriad of causes. In his 80s, he joined activists in the road to oppose police expulsions from squats.

However, he roused hostility when, in 1996, he spoke in support of the Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy -- support he eventually withdrew after three months of fierce polemic and accusations of anti-Semitism.

He was not afraid to shock Catholic conservatives, arguing for marriage in the priesthood and the ordination of women, and implying in a book published in 2005 that he had broken his vows of chastity.

Abbé Pierre was admitted to hospital on January 14 with a lung infection and died on Monday morning. He will be buried privately, but admirers are expected to flock to a service at Notre Dame cathedral on Friday, and an all-night gathering at a Paris stadium.


[Translated from Le Monde (Paris)]


By Michel Castaing and Bertrand Bissuel

Le Monde (Paris)
January 23, 2007


He died at the very moment when public authorities wish to render effective a principle for which he fought all his life: the right to housing. Till the twilight of his own existence, he defended the homeless and those who are poorly housed. Even in his weakened state, he insisted in January 2006 on going to the National Assembly to oppose legislators who wanted to eviscerate the law forcing several hundred communes to build social housing on their territory. Abbé Pierre died Monday, January 22, at 5:25 a.m. at the Val-de-Grâce Hospital in Paris, where he was admitted eight days earlier. He was 94 years old.

Henri Grouès -- he chose the pseudonym abbé Pierre when he was in hiding -- had been longing for death since he was a boy. "Already at 8 years of age [when his grandfather died], I lived waiting impatiently for death," he confided, preparing himself fervently for an imminent "encounter with absolute Love." "Our sister, death," as he called it, was someone abbé Pierre frequented.

Accidentally:  when he "became unscrewed" on an Alpine glacier during the war or when in July 1963 he barely escaped the sinking of an Argentine vessel in the Rio de la Plata. Because of illness, above all: never, perhaps, has an aged person managed to draw deeply on himself for so many physical and mental resources in order to come, for decades, to the aid of his neighbor.

Afflicted with lung disease, he often had to interrupt his studies, at the Jesuit secondary school in Lyon, at the theological faculty of the same city -- where he was born on Aug. 5, 1912, in a large (eight children), rich, and pious family of silk-manufacturers --, then again during his novitiate in Saint-Étienne and his studies at Crest (Drôme). After he chose, at the age of 19, the Capuchin order [the Friars Minor Capuchin are in fact a branch of the Franciscan order, one that adheres strictly to the original rule. --M.J.] -- giving his portion of his inheritance to the poor of Lyon --, it required all his director's capacity for persuasion exercised over a period of seven years to bring Henri Grouès to give up monasticism, whose rigors endangered his life. But, he would repeat, "if I had not experienced that desert of life, of permanent renunciation in Love, in the perception of the Adorable, I would not have been able to get through my later life without breaking."

Illness harassed him:  twenty-two months of hospitalization, six operations between 1954 and 1958, when he collapsed from physical and psychic fatigue after the crazy period that saw, as they say, "the uprising of goodwill" in favor of the homeless. Much later, abbé Pierre would suffer from Parkinson's disease, whose further development doctors stopped. In 1991, he suffered a heart attack.

By an irony of fate, diphtheria saved him, in the summer fof 1943, when he was transported to a clinic just before the Gestapo raided his presbytery in Grenoble, where he had been named vicar, after having been ordained a priest in August 1938. Grenoble was the switchyard of his out-of-sight activism: he participated in operations, created the first hideout for STO refugees [the Service de travail obligatoire was the Nazi forced labor program that drafted hundreds of thousands of French citizens to labor in German factories, and where tens of thousands died --M.J.], founded a clandestine newspaper, L'Union patriotique indépendante.  Arrested twice, he escaped twice, and met General de Gaulle in Algiers on June 17, 1944.

The provisional government named him chief chaplain of the navy. Duties led him to travel throughout Francophone Africa in 1945. His prediction had come true: as a child, he told people he would be "a missionary, a sailor, or a thief." He was delighted to have been a "thief" in the eyes of the Gestapo and the Vichy police.

Because almost to the end he deployed an astonishing degree of energy, and because his life spanned the 20th century, the precariousness of his health was little known by the public. And it's true: this fragility almost never prevented abbé Pierre from being on the front lines to support a cause and even, well past the age of 70, from participating in hunger strikes to denounce some injustice. Periods of forced repose were unable to keep him idle, either. As was proven by the revelation that most marked his life: on Easter, 1927, back from a pilgrimage to Rome, he experienced, while praying in Assisi, an "undescribable" exaltation that he was unable to explain. Illumination showed itself shortly thereafter during a period of convalescence, while reading a thick volume on Saint Francis of Assisi. Henri Grouès was then only fifteen years old. His spiritual path opened before him. To build, again and forever, became the altruistic obsession of abbé Pierre. Encouraged by his friends in the Resistance, he was elected after the Liberation as an independent député from Meurthe-et-Moselle (he joined the MRP [the Mouvement républicain populaire, a Christian Democratic party that grew out of the Resistance in 1944 that aspired to bridge the left-right divide and was faithful to General de Gaulle; it dissolved in 1967 --M.J.] in 1946, and later the Gauche indépendante socialiste [a formation of small left-wing parties that dated from 1936 --M.J.] in 1950 before losing an election in 1951. In order to be near the Palais-Bourbon [meeting place of the French Assemblée Nationale in Paris --M.J.], he fixed up a run-down villa in Neuilly-Plaisance (Seine-Saint-Denis) that became a meeting place for workers and a youth hostel.

It was in that neighborhood that in the summer of 1949, he met the ex-convict who had tried to commit suicide. "As for me, I have nothing to give you," abbé Pierre told him. "As for you, you have nothing to lose since you want to die. So help me help others." Georges would be the first compagnon in a refuge that on Easter 1950 abbé Pierre baptized "Emmaüs," referring to the Gospel (Luke 24).  Georges would later recall: "What I lacked was not only what I needed to live, but also reasons to live."

A small community formed, born from chance and necessity, without abbé Pierre having conceived of it as a projet, and still less as a work of charity. Its beginnings were full of adventures:  legal problems, alcoholics, poor people, promiscuity, fights, dire poverty. The Emmaüs pioneers were not choirboys, but they proved to have heart. Only those who were willing to work for more than their own support were admitted. Abbé Pierre had a motto: "Stand up, men," and a maxim: "The struggle for my bread can be materialistic; the struggle for others' bread is already a work of the spirit."

They took in a family evicted in the dead of winter in 1951. The compagnons built them a shelter. Their vocation as builders was born. It was not always exercised according to the rules of art and legal codes, but the authorities looked the other way, happy to be relieved of a milieu that was not, then, yet called the fourth world, but which looked just like it. Word of mouth and . . . departments of social services directed homeless people toward Emmaüs. Shacks built of wood or sheet metal, then little permament houses rose in Neuilly-Plaisance, in Pontault-Combault, in Plessis-Trévise.  But the treasurer of the community often ran out of money and abbé Pierre went begging on Paris's Grands Boulevards.  That gave two of the compagnons the idea of teaching to others what they had learned: and so the chiffonniers d'Emmaüs took their place alongside the builiders, and about 150 families found some kind of shelter.  Through the power of his anger and his message, the abbé provoked a tidal wave of generosity in France in the winter of 1954.

Abbé Pierre would never tire of repeating:  without the work done in obscurity since 1949, without the strength of the bonds formed in everyday experience, "nothing would have happened five years later."  Emmaüs would not have gone, according to his phrase, "from the catacombs to Vaticanization," spreading through the entire world until it counts, today, 350 communities, 110 of them in France.

Abbé Pierre did not have only happy memories of the beneficent flood of 1954.  Even more than the serious health problems that resulted from it, he deplored at this time his "tumultuous celebrity," and decided to disappear from the French media scene.  For three long decades, he would be seen in front of cameras only very infrequently, expressing indignation about "the distress of the Bengali people" (1971) or the "tragedy of the boat people" (1979).  He visited, often working there with his own hands, the Emmaus communities in 35 countries, gave numerous lectures, and went to the United States and Canada, where, before mesmerized audiences, he castigated that rich and exhorted the young to organize “nor for money, but for Love.”  He wrote a “universal manifesto,” adopted in 1969 in Bern by the first world assembly of Emmaüs.  This profession of faith prescribes, in its first article, that “those who are suffering the most should be served first.”  While drafting it, abbé Pierre remembered his own father who, on Sunday mornings, would go to wash and shave poor people.

One rare moment:  when he recaptured, in 1984, at the age of 72, the public stage, the collective memory immediately recalled the wispy face with hollow cheeks whose beard had grown white, the fixed blue-eyed gaze constantly alert and probing, the frail silhouette always coifed with a beret, wearing a soutane that abbé Pierre never spared himself the trouble of wearing, the pilgrim’s cloak tossed over his shoulder, the thick-soled shoes bespotted with the mud of the shantytowns and the tribune’s voice that contrasted so strikingly with the frail profile.  It was just as if, across the intervening generations, the message of Feb. 1, 1954, had been unconsciously transmitted.  Thirty years later, the founder of Emmaüs at once had the ear of French young people.

In 1984, a somber story made him overcome his own resistance and make a forceful return in the media.  The Hypérion school in Paris was strongly suspected by Italian authorities of being a base of former Red Brigade members.  One of its teachers, Vanni Mulinaris, while traveling to Udine (Friuli), was arrested, jailed, and accused of terrorism.  Abbé Pierre knew the teacher personally; for him, this was a “violation of the rights of man.” He hasseled the public authorities on both sides of the Alps.  Vanni Mulinaris was freed after three years in prison, without being convicted of anything.

The same year, at the Palais des congrès in Paris, before 3,000 intently listening people, abbé Pierre spoke out again, this time against “the scandal of the destruction of agricultural surpluses,” announcing the establishment of the first French food bank.  Coluche was inspired by this in 1985 to create the Restaurants du coeur (‘Restaurants of the Heart’). Indifferent to the comedian’s humor, but sensitive to his mordant lucidity, abbé Pierre supported his initiative. In March 1986, Michel Colucci knocked on his door and gave him a check for 1.5 million francs.  Three months later, Coluche was killed in a motorcycle accident.  Abbé Pierre celebrated the funeral mass.

Both were media phenomenons.  Despite his greatest efforts to the contrary, said the founder of Emmaüs.  Toward the end of his life, he confided:  “I am tired of everything that made me famous,” and denied his own “myth.”  He had sought out the media in 1954, and now, thirty years later, they refused to leave him alone, till in 1994 he announced a withdrawal from television.  During a live TV program, he had been booed, for the first time in his life, by some fool in the audience, because he had, remaining in his priestly role, declared that “fidelity” was still the best barrier against sexually transmitted diseases.

For that decade, though, from 1984 to 1994, he had been the conscience of French society.  For him, it had been “a duty” to rail before pens, microphones, and cameras, whenever the specter of an injustice appeared.  “Voice of people without a voice,” as he liked to define himself, his bouts of anger were always spontaneous.  They caused more than one public official to reflect, and to yield, on the left as well as on the right.  On July 14, 1992, promoted grand officier of the Légion d’honneur on the eve of his 80th birthday, he refused to wear the insignia so long as 300 African families, evicted and camping out for the previous three months in a public square in Vincennes, were not given housing.  Within 24 hours, the socialist government of Pierre Bérégovoy put two vacant buildings at their disposition.

On Dec. 18, 1994, abbé Pierre accompanied some Droit au logement (DAL) (‘Right to Housing’) activists who occupied a building on the rue du Dragon, in Paris’s Sixth Arrondissement.  That night, a Sunday, he was received by the prime minister, Édouard Balladur, who guaranteed that security forces would not intervene.  The next day, Jacques Chirac, then mayor of Paris, went one better -- right in the middle of a presidential campaign, it’s true -- by yielding to one of DAL’s demands: a 1945 ordonnance on requisitioning vacant lodgings was revived.

Abbé Pierre was an able politician.  He knew how to play on his own charisma without becoming the tool of politicians.  “The say I’m ‘on the left,’ that makes me laugh.  Right, left, I know nothing about that,” he wrote in Testament.   “My choice is to show reality as it is and to bring to the fore priorities.”  His independence of mind permitted him, from one election to another, to address candidates on the fate of those most in need, notably on the occasion of various bills against the marginalization of poor people (‘exclusion’).

He committed a faux pas when, in April 1996, he lent his support to the Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy.  A cruel and painful aberration:  The man who had joined the Resistance in July 1942 and had saved many Jews by getting them across the border into Switzerland or Spain; the man who had always attacked the extreme right’s ideas, publicly comparing Jean-Marie Le Pen to Mussolini; the man who proclaimed that “to be a racist is to be angry at the wrong thing”; that same man strayed, at the age of 83, into an anti-Semitic cause.  But after three months of a painful polemic, abbé Pierre expressed total repentance.  Opinion had been deeply disturbed, however, and not only among the faithful.

In the aftermath, his public interventions became less and less frequent as the weight of years accumulated. But now and then he found the strength to come to the defense of those who lost struggles for a right to housing.  In June 1999, he attracted the attention of the mayor of Paris to the fate of some forty families campiing out in the Eleventh Arrondissement.  In November 2002, he went to Choisy-le-Roi (Val-de-Marne), in a shantytown occupied by Romanian families, to denounce Nicolas Sarkozy’s bill on domestic security.  From Trocadéro, he issued, in February 2004, a new appeal in favor of the destitute, castigating the selfishness of those who prevent empty houses from being requisitioned and keep social housing from being built.

The founder of Emmaüs was clear-sighted about society, the evolution of mores, and sexuality.  Recognizing without false modesty that "what was hardest to live with was really the vow of chastity, which leads to the renunciation of the tenderness of a woman," he took account of lived human experience, whether it was a question of contraception, abortion, or the use of condoms to protect agains AIDS:  "To risk consciously infecting someone," he said, "is criminal."  Neither his sensitivity to the problems of society nor his frank criticisms with respect to the Roman Catholic Church's pomp ever closed the doors of the Vatican to him.  He was received fraternally by all the postwar popes.  "You are my burning coal," Monsignor Roncalli, then papal nuncio in Paris and the future Pope John XXIII, told him.  Abbé Pierre also conversed with most of the world's leading figures, preaching in favor of a federal government on a planetary scale, "respectful of the various forms of human diversity, but capable of establishing a minimum common law."

Abbé Pierre was one of the first to understand that poverty required a different approach from a paternalistic, even humiliating distribution of welfare.  The founder of Emmaüs did not often speak of God with his compagnons, but he revealed to them his three "certainties":  "In spite of all the atrocities, in spite of all the suffering of so many men and women . . . , yes, I believe that the Eternal is Love after all, that we are loved after all, and that we are free after all."

--Michel Castaing, the initial drafter of this obituary, died in 2006.  The text has been reviewed and completed by Bertrand Bissuel.

Translated by Mark K. Jensen
Associate Professor of French
Departement of Languages and Literatures
Pacific Lutheran University
Tacoma, WA 98447
Phone: 253-535-7219
Web page: http://www.plu.edu/~jensenmk/
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