Abbe Pierre

Campaigner for the homeless who was regularly named as the most admired man in France
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Henri-Antoine Grouès (Abbé Pierre), priest and charity worker: born Lyons, France 5 August 1912; entered Capuchin Order 1931 as Brother Philippe; ordained priest 1938; parliamentary deputy 1945-51; founder, Emmaus movement 1949; died Paris 22 January 2007.

It was a freezing night in February 1954. "At 3 o'clock this morning, a woman died of cold on the Boulevard Sebastopol. In her hand was the eviction order she had received the day before. Friends, help!" Abbé Pierre declared urgently, having barged his way into the Radio Luxembourg studios in Paris and seized the microphone from an astonished journalist:

There are people dying in the streets of Paris. In three hours the first help centres for the homeless will be set up. We need 500 blankets, 300 large tents, 200 stoves.

He told listeners when and where to bring their supplies.

Within hours, many had gathered on the appointed street near the Champs-Elysées, eager to help the thousands of homeless in what was the coldest winter for 70 years. More importantly, perhaps, the French parliament voted just days later to allocate funds for housing 10 times above the level it had rejected the previous month.

"We're not Napoleon or Joan of Arc," Abbé Pierre wrote to the government:

We have no ambitions other than being a flea that bites a politician or a bureaucrat, shouting "Wake up!", so they will finally hear the silent voice of the people.

By the mid-Fifties, Abbé Pierre - Catholic priest and politician - was already a well-known figure. As a radical parliamentary deputy representing the poor mining town of Meurthe-et-Moselle, he had played a key role in transforming housing policy. He also promoted a bill to legalise conscientious objection to military service. The dramatic late-night radio appeal galvanised France. Abbé Pierre's Emmaus movement, which he had begun several years earlier, to give homes to the homeless and dignity through work, received a new boost.

The third of seven children of a pious middle-class family, he was born Henri-Antoine Grouès and educated at a Jesuit college in Lyons. He wished in his teens to become a missionary. At the age of 19 he gave away all his possessions and entered the Capuchin order, becoming Brother Philippe, but ill-health forced him to leave before ordination.

In August 1938 he was ordained a diocesan priest, becoming a hospital chaplain. In 1941 he became vicar of Grenoble cathedral. During the Second World War he was conscripted into the French army as an NCO but was discharged with pleurisy.

He then worked for the Resistance, taking Abbé Pierre as his nom de guerre. He smuggled many Jewish families and others under threat over the mountains into Switzerland before that route was closed off by the Swiss. He later transferred his activities to the Pyrenees. Among those he smuggled to safety was General Charles de Gaulle's disabled brother Jacques.

Abbé Pierre first learnt of the Nazi extermination of the Jews in 1943, when a German seminarian summoned him to a café in Lyons and showed him photographs he had taken at great risk in an extermination camp. "I looked again at the photos and didn't believe him," he admitted later in shame. "It was unthinkable."

He was denounced to the Gestapo in 1944, hearing the dreaded knock on the door. "My task is ended," he thought to himself. But he managed to escape. Realising he had to flee, he obtained a letter from a heraldic expert authorising him to investigate the aristocratic pretensions of the Vichy Minister for Jewish Affairs, Darquier de Pellepoix. This helped him persuade the Nazi commandant to give him permission to visit the prohibited frontier zone in French Basque country.

He fled over the border into Spain, but was betrayed to the police. Only the intervention of the anti-Fascist bishop of Vittoria secured his release. The Canadian Red Cross gave him papers identifying him as Sir Harry Barlow, a downed RAF pilot, and under this name he was deported to Gibraltar. He then flew to Algiers to join the Free French forces under de Gaulle. His war ended as a senior naval chaplain in Paris.

Despite his opposition to the Gaullists, de Gaulle persuaded Abbé Pierre to stand for parliament. It was with another former resistance worker, Lucie Coutaz, that he established the first community. To begin with, he simply opened his own presbytery to homeless people he found on the streets of Paris.

He had planned his large, dilapidated house in the Paris suburb of Neuilly Plaisance to be a student hostel fostering reconciliation among Europe's post-war generation. But soon it was being shared with 18 homeless men on whom he spent his whole salary, buying war-surplus materials for them to put up temporary homes, first in his own large garden. Gradually these communities, whose members became known as Les Chiffonniers d'Emmaus ("the rag pickers of Emmaus"), took on a momentum of their own as the "compagnons" showed they could support themselves by using skills learned while they had been living on the streets. By recycling, refurbishing and re-circulating other people's rubbish, the communities were eventually able to make enough money to support themselves.

The Emmaus movement soon spread across the world. But the growth of the movement took its toll. In 1958 - after a series of operations - Abbé Pierre experienced "terrible moments", overburdened by what he felt was his huge responsibility. "Some thought me mad," he admitted later.

Within the Catholic Church, he was tolerated as a prophetic, if at times erratic voice. Close to Angelo Roncalli (the future Pope John XXIII) when he was nuncio in Paris, Abbé Pierre was friends with an enormous range of leading Catholics, from Henri de Lubac and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin to Dom Helder Camera of Brazil, as well as charity workers like Albert Schweitzer and politicians like Bernard Kouchner.

Abbé Pierre was not afraid to voice his dissent over Catholic teaching and practice, publicly opposing the ban on artificial contraception and the compulsory celibacy for Latin-rite priests. He admitted that the lack of intimacy with a woman caused him "constant suffering, every day, all my life":

If I was 18 again, given how much the deprivation of tenderness would cost and not knowing it, I certainly wouldn't have the strength to pronounce joyously the vow of chastity.

But Abbé Pierre was aware he could get away with "measured insolence" about the leadership of the Church. "I wait with impatience for the day when the mitre that popes, bishops and abbots always wear will disappear." He even told Pope John Paul II that he should retire when he reached the age of 75 (he himself formally retired at 70).

Abbé Pierre recognised that politics was where change could be achieved. In 1993 he contemplated standing for the European Parliament, but ill-health forced him to withdraw. Long disliked by some (such as the National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen) for what they saw as his naïve left-wing views, Abbé Pierre gained new enemies in 1996 when he supported his friend Roger Garaudy and his controversial book Les Mythes fondateurs de la politique israélienne (1996, translated as The Mythical Foundations of Israeli Policy, 1997).

He wrote to Garaudy, a Communist turned Muslim, of "my affectionate esteem and my respect for the enormous work of your new book" and recalled the "horror" he had felt when he studied the Book of Joshua and realised that the Israelites had gained control over the Promised Land through "a true Shoah" of the original inhabitants. His support for Garaudy aroused instant anger from the Jewish community and others. Abbé Pierre was stripped of his honoured membership of the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism. Under strong pressure, including from Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris, a convert from Judaism, Abbé Pierre apologised.

By 2001, he had returned to his customary position as the person most French admired (though he would briefly be bounced from the top spot amid football World Cup fever in 2002 by Zinédine Zidane). His popularity provided a constant riddle for sociologists, who saw France as one of the most secularised countries in the world.

A published poet, Abbé Pierre was also the author and subject of numerous best-selling books. But even his autobiographical works were mostly collections of his thoughts and his credo:

I have no nostalgia for childhood and youth, no nostalgia for the old days. What's the point in wallowing in what has been? Let's get on with serious things.

He saved up his bombshell until the end, confessing in his 2005 book Mon Dieu . . . Pourquoi? ("My God . . . Why?") that he had not kept his vow of celibacy (he also backed the introduction of female Catholic priests). The book's entire first print-run of 20,000 copies sold within a few days of its publication in France.

Despite living so close to death (not only did he narrowly escape Gestapo execution but survived being shipwrecked on the way to Argentina) and seeing death so frequently among the homeless in France and in Latin America, he rejoiced in life. He was grateful to have survived the war without having had to kill. "It is in total serenity that I think of death," he said.

Felix Corley