Modern-day saint: l’abbé Pierre

If l’abbé Pierre were alive today he would have just started his 11th decade on this earth. As it is, he died in 2007 a few months before his 95th birthday. A long life indeed, but as the saying goes, “it’s not the years in your life that count but the life in your years”…and l’abbé Pierre certainly lived a life that counted.

His real name was Henri Grouès – he acquired his sobriquet during while serving with the French Resistance, although ‘abbé’ is often used as a courtesy title for Catholic priests, and the codename stayed with him for the rest of his life.

Born on 5 August 1912 in Lyon into a wealthy Catholic family of silk traders, he showed an interest in spiritual things from an early age, joining a monastic order when he was 19. A lung infection forced him to leave the monastery and he became a chaplain, first in a hospital and then in an orphanage and, after his ordination in 1938, he later became curate at the cathedral in Grenoble.

During World War II, l’abbé Pierre became a symbol of the Resistance: he helped Jews to escape over the border into Switzerland, founded an underground newspaper and provided a refuge for people destined for Nazi forced-labour camps. He was arrested twice, but managed to join General de Gaulle’s Free French Forces in Algeria.

The war years reinforced his strong belief in standing up for fundamental human rights. Thinking that his aims could be achieved firstly through legislation, he was elected as an MP in the Meurthe-et-Moselle département and presided over a movement for universal federalism. While a serving MP he used his salary to restore a run-down house in Neuilly-Plaisance just outside Paris, where he welcomed homeless people.

It was here that Georges Legay, a released prisoner on the verge of suicide, was brought to him. Instead of merely offering a roof over his head, l’abbé Pierre asked him to help his work with the homeless – and so the Emmaüs movement was born, ‘to give people a bed and a reason to get out of it’. When l’abbé Pierre resigned from the National Assembly and no longer had a salary to fund his work, the ‘compagnons’ started collecting cast-off furniture and second-hand goods to repair and re-sell to raise money to build more refuges for the homeless.

The winter of 1954 was harsh and homeless people were dying in the street. On hearing of a woman who had frozen to death clutching an eviction notice, l’abbé Pierre made a broadcast on Radio Luxembourg urging people to follow his lead and open up aid centres “so that no man, no child, will sleep on the asphalt or on the waterfronts of Paris tonight”. The response was overwhelming – 500 million francs were donated and many people volunteered to help. The next day the press described it as an insurrection de la bonté (an uprising of kindness). The events of 1954 led to the adoption of a law preventing tenants from being evicted during the winter months.

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Throughout his life, l’abbé Pierre did not court fame, but nor did he shy away from speaking out on issues dear to his heart. In the 1980s and 1990s he supported the comedian Coluche’s Restos du Coeur free meals network, condemned the views of far-right Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen and called for an end to conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and in the Middle East.

L’abbé Pierre died in hospital in Paris on 22 January 2007. His funeral, held in the Cathédrale de Notre-Dame, was attended by President Jacques Chirac and former president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. However, at the front of the congregation, according to l’abbé Pierre’s last wishes, were the compagnons d’Emmaüs. L’abbé Pierre is buried in the village of Esteville in Normandy, alongside 26 compagnons, including the first one, Georges Legay.

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L’abbé Pierre was voted France’s most popular person 17 times, until he asked to be taken off the list to make way for someone younger. In 2005 television viewers made him the third greatest French person of all time, after Charles de Gaulle and Louis Pasteur.

His awards include: Croix de Guerre, Médaille de la Résistance, Médaille Militaire, Grande Croix de la Légion d’Honneur and the Balzan Prize for Humanity, Peace and Brotherhood among Peoples.

Emmaüs has communities in 40 countries, 24 of which are in the UK (with nine more in the pipeline). The Fondation Abbé Pierre works throughout the world to provide and improve housing, while Emmaüs International tackles wider issues such as water quality and contemporary slavery, as well as homelessness (www.fondationabbepierre.com, www.emmaus-international.org, www.emmaus.org.uk).

To learn more about the life and work of l’abbé Pierre visit le Centre Abbé Pierre Emmaüs at Esteville, Normandy (www.centre-abbe-pierre-emmaus.org)