The extraordinary Abbé Pierre of Emmaüs by Brian Langston

The extraordinary Abbe Pierre of Emmaus 1"You don’t need to be perfect before you can start doing something good".
Abbé Pierre

 

The nondescript shopfronts of the Emmaüs charity shops, which can be found right across France, belie the remarkable story of the Catholic priest who was their founder. Very few expats rummaging through the bric-à-brac are au fait with the amazing achievements of the miraculous monk who devoted his life to helping the poor.

 

The man who was to become famous as Abbé Pierre, was born Henri Grouès in Lyon on 15 th August 1912 into a wealthy family. He shunned the family silk business and at 19 years of age became a Franciscan friar. He renounced his inheritance to join the most austere order of Capuchin monks but the harsh living conditions were to aggravate a childhood respiratory condition, and "Brother Phillip" was dogged with ill health for the rest of his life.

 

The extraordinary Abbe Pierre of Emmaus 2He became a priest in 1938 and at the outbreak of WWII briefly saw military service in the train transport corps where he helped Jews escape Nazi persecution by supplying them with false passports. After being invalided out on health grounds, he continued his clandestine work by becoming a leading member of the French Resistance working in occupied France. Under the codename of Abbé Pierre he led the underground movement known as the Maquis. The courageous Abbé became an important symbol of French Resistance throughout the conflict and managed to avoid execution despite being twice arrested by the Nazis. He escaped to Algeria to join the Free French Forces of Charles de Gaulle and became the chaplain on a French battleship in Casablanca.

 

After the war he was honoured with the Croix de Guerre and Médaille de la Résistance but the harrowing sights he had seen, made him a lifelong campaigner for human rights. Abbé Pierre was incensed by the refusal of the government to deal with the poverty and homelessness the war had created, and began a one-man crusade.

 

In 1947 he rented a large run-down house in Neuilly-Plaisance, outside Paris and offered accommodation to homeless men and women. He began to single-handedly repair the roof and co-opted "companions" to help restore the property, eventually raising enough funds to purchase it. In December 1949, a few days before Christmas, Abbé Pierre put up the first family, who had been evicted from their home and the Emmaüs movement was born, taking its name from the biblical village where two disciples extended hospitality to Jesus just after his resurrection, without recognizing him.

 

The extraordinary Abbe Pierre of Emmaus 4

In October 1950, Abbé Pierre and the companions were given permission to build the first set of homes for the poor and homeless.

He devoted his life to building the foundation and raising money, often taking innovative steps to raise funds. In 1952 he enrolled as a contestant on a Radio Luxembourg game show "Double or Nothing" and won 256,000 francs which allowed him to buy a piece of land and build more homes.

 

On 1st February 1954, in the midst of a devastatingly harsh winter, which saw the homeless dying in the streets, the Abbé made his most famous speech which began...

 

"My friends, your help is needed... A woman froze to death tonight at 3:00am, on the pavement of Sebastopol Boulevard, clutching the eviction notice which the day before had made her homeless... Each night, more than two thousand endure the cold, without food, without bread, more than one almost naked..."

 

The extraordinary Abbe Pierre of Emmaus 3His heart-rending radio and newspaper appeal for blankets, tents and stoves to avoid further death, captured the hearts of the nation and provoked an unprecedented surge of kindness. Charlie Chaplin hearing the moving oration, immediately donated two million francs which proved to be the catalyst for one of the greatest and most successful charity appeals ever, with a total of 500 million francs being donated to the cause.

 

The government bowed to public opinion and three days later freed up 10 billion francs for the construction of 10,000 emergency homes, and approved a law forbidding evictions during the winter.

 

This enabled the Abbé to put the Emmaüs movement on a business footing and it has continued to thrive ever since. It is now a significant international force tackling poverty and homelessness in thousands of projects across the globe.

 

His status as a miracle worker was enhanced in 1950 when he survived a plane crash in India after engine failure forced an emergency crash landing. The legend was reinforced when in 1963 he survived a shipwreck in South America, clinging to the wreckage in a tragedy which claimed the lives of 80 fellow passengers.

 

Throughout his remarkable life Abbé Pierre lobbied and engaged world leaders from the US President to the Dalai Lama in his mission. His outspoken approach often brought him into conflict with the Vatican, which he once criticised for wasting money, but proved hugely popular with the public who voted him the most loved person in France for several years running.

 

He succumbed to a lung infection on 22nd January 2007 just short of his 95th birthday. Thousands thronged to his funeral led by President Jacques Chirac who paid tribute to a very special man who in his long and eventful life saved thousands of lives and gave hope to millions more. The humble Abbé, who was considered by many to be a living saint, was finally laid to rest according to his wishes, in a small cemetery in Esteville in Seine Maritime where he once lived.