Who was Abbe Pierre?
Popularly known as the founder of the Emmaus movement, Abbe Pierre was a French Catholic priest who devoted his life to serving the poor, homeless people, and refugees. Spiritually inclined from an early age, he decided as a teenager to dedicate his life to the service of mankind. As a young man he renounced his inheritance and joined the Franciscan monastery of Notre Dame du Bon Secours at St Etienne. He was also a member of the Resistance during World War II, and deputy of the Popular Republican Movement (MRP). He founded the Emmaus movement in 1949 to help the poor and the homeless. However it was not until 1954 that the movement became popular. After several homeless people died in the extremely harsh winter that year, Pierre made an appeal on the newspapers and radio asking the well-to-do people to come forward and help the less fortunate. This helped the movement gain momentum and also earned Pierre much popularity worldwide. Originating in France, the movement eventually spread to other countries and as of 2014 there were 336 Emmaus organizations in 37 countries. Even though the name “Emmaus” is based upon a Biblical story, the movement is a secular one and strives to help needy people irrespective of their religion or community.
Childhood & Early Life
Born as Henri Marie Joseph Grouès on 5 August 1912, in Lyon, France, to a wealthy Catholic family, he was the fifth of eight children. His father was a prosperous silk trader with a strong social conscience.
Henri was spiritually inclined from an early age and was just 12 when he decided to become a missionary. As a young boy he accompanied his father to an Order circle, the brotherhood of the "Hospitaliers veilleurs", where he learnt the significance of serving the poor.
He realized his true calling at the age of 16 and decided to join a monastic order. However he had to wait for some time before he could fulfill this ambition as he was considered too young at 16.
In 1931, he finally entered Capuchin Order, the principal offshoot of the Franciscan monastery of Notre Dame du Bon Secours at St Etienne. He renounced all his wealth and inheritances and offered all of his materialistic possessions to charities. Thus he left behind his identity as Henri Marie Joseph Grouès and took the name of Brother Philippe.
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Brother Philippe entered the monastery of Crest in 1932. He lived there for seven years but had to leave in 1939 due to ill health. Now he took up the position of chaplain in the hospital of La Mure and later, at an orphanage in the Côte-Saint-André.
Meanwhile, in 1938, he was ordained as a Roman Catholic Priest. Shortly afterwards, he was made the curate of Grenoble's cathedral in April 1939.
He was enlisted as a non-commissioned officer (NCO) in the train transport corps on the outbreak of the Second World War. He was sent to Alsace for training but he became ill from pleurisy there.
He became the vicar of Grenoble cathedral following the fall of France. In this position he was actively involved in the French Resistance and helped Jews and politically persecuted escape to Switzerland. Jacques de Gaulle (the brother of Charles de Gaulle) and his wife were among the ones he helped escape.
Involvement in French Resistance
In 1943, Brother Philippe began writing for the clandestine newspaper ‘Union patriotique indépendante’ under the pseudonym “Georges.” During this time he operated using several pseudonyms as he needed to protect his identity from the Gestapo. “Abbé Pierre” was one of the several identities he created for himself.
In the early 1940s he gained the reputation of being a major character and symbol of the French Resistance. He assisted people in avoiding being forcefully taken into the Service du travail obligatoire (STO) established by the Nazis. He established a refugee camp for the ones who resisted the STO in Grenoble. His resistance work earned him the ire of the Nazis for which he even had to face arrests.
After the war ended Abbe Pierre was elected deputy for Meurthe-et-Moselle department in both National Constituent Assemblies in 1945–1946. Even though he was independent, he was close to the Popular Republican Movement (MRP), mainly consisting of Christian democratic members of the Resistance.
In 1947, he became vice-president of the Confédération mondiale, a universal federalist movement. However with time he became disillusioned with the political parties and quit his political career. Even though he did not get involved in representative politics in the years to come, he never shied away from sharing his views on political stances.
Founding of Emmaus
Moved by the plight of the homeless people in Paris, Abbe Pierre founded Emmaus in 1949. It was a solidarity movement aimed at providing accommodation to the homeless and aid to the poverty-stricken.
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He bought a property alongside a railway line at Neuilly-sur-Marne with the aim of cultivating a working community where the poor people could live and contribute towards community-building. By now he had taken in a few inmates, and together with them, he worked hard to build shelters with proper health and infrastructural facilities.
The initial years invested at establishing Emmaus were a struggle. However, the unusually harsh winter of 1954 changed the situation. Several homeless people died and Abbe Pierre appealed to the middle-class and wealthy citizens to come forward and donate to help the homeless.
Pierre appealed through the newspapers and radio to reach a large audience and his appeal had a huge impact. The French people responded generously and the Emmaus movement started gaining momentum.
Soon the movement started spreading to other countries as well and developed into an international charity with Emmaus communities taking roots across Europe, the Far East and South America. As of 2014, there were 336 Emmaus organizations in 37 countries.
Abbe Pierre is best remembered as the founder of the Emmaus, a movement to combat poverty and homelessness. Initially started to provide accommodation for the homeless people of Paris, the movement soon spread throughout France. The rising popularity of the Emmaus also led to opening of branches in several other countries. Millions of needy people around the world have been assisted by the movement so far.
Awards & Achievements
For his wartime contributions, Abbe Pierre was awarded the Croix de Guerre 1939-1945 with bronze palms and the Médaille de la Résistance.
He was honored with the Balzan Prize for Humanity, Peace and Brotherhood among Peoples in 1991 for his relentless and selfless service to humanity.
He was made Grand Officer of the National Order of Quebec in 1998.
In 2004, he was awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor by Jacques Chirac.
Personal Life & Legacy
Abbe Pierre was lucky enough to survive several accidents including an emergency plane landing in 1950 and a shipwreck in 1963. He miraculously escaped with minor injuries both the times.
He lived a long and active life despite being plagued by lung problems in his youth. He died on 22 January 2007 following a lung infection, at the age of 94.
His funeral was held on 26 January 2007 at the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. Numerous distinguished people including President Jacques Chirac, former President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin attended it.