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Tuesday, October 25, 2016
Feature: Abbe Pierre - champion of the homeless
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 (The following article was first published in Bible Alive magazine in 2003) He has been voted the most popular man in France 17 times. Abbé Pierre, a frail, 91 year-old priest with a white beard, beret and spectacles, once again won the accolade in summer 2003 - ahead of football heroes and movie stars - in a poll carried out by the Journal du Dimanche newspaper. The Abbé has devoted his entire life to the poor, homeless and unemployed. The work which he began continues through the Emmaus movement he founded, which has created self-supporting communities for homeless and excluded people in many countries around the world. Born Henri Grouès, on August 15, 1912, in Lyon, in the south of France, he was the third of seven children. As a youngster he used to go into hospitals with his father, a member of the Catholic lay society, 'The Hospital Watchers' to chat with patients, shave them and cut their hair. At the age of 16, he decided he wanted to become a Franciscan. In 1931 he joined the Capuchin community at Crest as a brother. Seven years later he was ordained priest. In April 1939, his life changed dramatically, as he was sent from the quiet religious community to the bustling city of Grenoble to work as parish priest. Within a few months, war broke out and France was invaded by Germany. The young priest joined the Resistance and was soon making forged identity papers and work permits and helping to smuggle Jewish people out of the country to Switzerland. In 1943, he met resistance worker Lucie Coutaz, who was later to to become involved with the Emmaus community. It was during this time that Fr Henri was given the code name 'Abbé Pierre' which he has kept ever since. That name was on the Gestapo's wanted list. On several occasions his life was in great danger. In 1944 Abbé Pierre escaped to Spain and joined the Free French forces in Algiers where he worked for a time as a Navy chaplain. When the war ended, the Abbé returned to France and in October 1945, General De Gaulle persuaded him to stand for parliament. He won the election as an independent candidate allied to the socialists. The war had left many people in France desperately poor. To begin with, the Abbé simply opened his own presbytery to homeless people who he found on the streets. He had planned to make his large, dilapidated house in the Paris suburb of Neuilly Plaisance, into a student hostel, fostering reconciliation among Europe's post-war generation. But very soon 18 homeless men had moved in. The Abbé spent his whole salary, buying war-surplus materials for them to put up temporary homes, first in his own large garden. One of the men was a homeless ex-convict called George, who had planned to commit suicide. George was to became one of the founder members of Emmaus. Soon more homes were established and gradually these communities, whose members became known as 'Les Chiffonniers d' Emmaus' (the rag pickers of Emmaus), took on a dynamic of their own as the 'companions' and showed they could support themselves by using skills learned while they had been living on the streets. By recycling, refurbishing and re-cycling other people's rubbish - glass, paper, cloth and metals, the Communities were eventually able to make enough income to support themselves. In parliament, the Abbé battled for the unemployed and roofless refugees crowding Paris, as well as dealing with the social problems of his poor constituency in the mining town of Meurthe-et-Moselle. The winter of 1954 was exceptionally cold, with temperatures hitting minus 20C. The story has been retold in a 1989 film by Denis Amar: ' Un Hiver 54' - ' The Winter of 54'. When a homeless woman died of hypothermia in the street, the Abbé launched a radio appeal throughout France, which shocked the nation and brought in a flood of donations. Abbé Pierre understood the power of radio and television, and from that time on, became a spokesman for the poor and underprivileged, showing a gift for speaking on the media and persuading politicians to support his projects. He often would make a broadcast appealing for support for the poor, just weeks before an election. One issue the Abbé Pierre, and other groups, such as 'Droit au Logement' were angry about, was the fact that, while hundreds of apartments were vacant in Paris, and most other large French cities, thousands of families did not have decent living conditions. Either they were on the streets or living in overcrowded slums. To make the point, Abbé Pierre went to Paris and took over an empty building in Rue Du Dragon. Jacques Chirac, who was Paris's mayor at the time, was compelled to react, as was Balladur, the French Prime Minister. But they both gave in to the pressure exerted by Abbé Pierre, possibly because they realized it would have meant political suicide to ignore him. From that point on, Chirac promised to requisition empty buildings in accordance with an old 1945 law. While he was sometimes an annoyance to the French government, he has also been treated with great respect by them and has often been called 'France's national conscience'. In 1981 he was an officer of the Legion of Honour. In 1988, at the age of 70, the Abbé Pierre retired to the monastery of Saint-Wandrille. In the following year he sat at the right hand side of Jean-Paul II during a Papal visit. In 1992, he gave back his Legion of Honour title to draw attention to the plight of homeless people. A major crisis erupted in 1996, when some Jewish groups accused the Abbé of being anti-Semitic, after he had made some comments supporting a book by his old friend, the philosopher Roger Garaudy. The book had allegedly compared the acts of the ancient Israelites to the Holocaust. American campaigners urged the Catholic Church to take action against him. The Abbé, who was 83 by this time, denied all the accusations, and went to an Italian monastery for two weeks. He said he had been forced to leave France by the media attention and "the bizarre campaign orchestrated against me." His defenders said that the elderly priest who had risked his life in the past to save the lives of Jewish people, was not anti-Semitic. They said his remarks had been taken out of context and he had simply been appealing for justice for the Palestinians. The scandal eventually subsided and in April 2001 President Jacques Chirac once again made him an officer of the Legion of Honour. The Abbé now lives in quiet retirement, but the movement he began continues to grow around the world. Emmaus Communities are now being developed across Europe, North America and South Africa. In England there are currently nine Emmaus Communities and many more more groups developing new Emmaus Communities for the future. With a motto of: "Giving people a bed... and a reason to get out of it" the Communities offer a supportive 'family' environment where everyone has their part to play. Sharing meals and household jobs, as well as celebrating birthdays are essential elements in ensuring that the Community is more than simply a hostel. Companions make a commitment to come off benefits and not to bring drugs or alcohol on the premises. They are encouraged to develop existing skills and learn new ones. An Emmaus UK spokesperson said: "At the heart of the Emmaus movement is the concept of solidarity which means acknowledging that, as human beings, we are bound and linked to all other human beings. It is our way of life in Community that we should only take that which is necessary for our own needs and pass on surpluses to share with those in greater need." UK President of Emmaus, Terry Waite CBE said: "Emmaus is a model for a new compassionate structure in society. I intend to do everything in my power to help the charity reach its goal of establishing a Community in every significant town or city in the UK."
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