Sister Emmanuelle: An unorthodox nun

Sister Emmanuelle: An unorthodox nunMuch is known about the characteristics and life time work of this popular French nun who passed away just weeks before her 100th birthday. A lasting testimony will be the legacy of her great devotion and dedication to the poorest of the poor in the acrid and squalid slum areas of Cairo in Egypt and well beyond.
She wrote books about her experiences, her faith and her cause. Her life memory ‘I’m a hundred years old, and I want to tell you’ was published in August 2008. She spent her last years in a wheelchair and considered her death would simply be a “reunion between a child and her father, God”.
France’s President described her as a “woman of high conviction but also one of action”…and “a sister to us all”. An unorthodox nun whose character – like that of Abb? Pierre and Nobel Peace Laureate, Mother Teresa – had the ability to show how Christian charity …‘can speak to all men’.
Sister Emmanuelle (1908-2008)
One of three children, Madeleine Cinguin was born in Brussels, Belgium on 16 November 1908 to a successful French Jewish father and Belgian mother. On 20 October 2008 she died in her sleep in a retirement home of her religious congregation at Callian, Var, France, and was buried in a private ceremony.
On the same day a requiem mass was celebrated at the Paris Notre-Dame Cathedral in the presence of the French President, many governmental and other dignitaries, leaders of Muslim and Jewish faiths and many ordinary people too.
A terrible trauma occurred in the life of young Madeleine Cinguin when at six years old she watched helplessly while her father drowned in rough sea at Ostende that deeply affected her. She spent her childhood between Brussels, Paris and London. She chose to study religion and took a degree in philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris. Free spirited and sociable she led a comfortable and carefree life enjoying the company of her many friends and also experienced a love relationship.
She joined the Order of Our Lady of Sion taking her religious vows in 1931 as Sister Emmanuelle or ‘God is with us’. The Order was created in 1843 with the aim of conversion of Jews to Christianity; its congregation specialised in setting up prestigious teaching establishments in countries bordering the Mediterranean. For forty years she taught literature to young girls from the privileged classes in Turkey, Tunisia and Egypt and would take them during courses to visit the poor and slums.
In retirement Sister Emmanuelle received permission from her congregation to embark on her long cherished project where she spent more than two decades struggling to improve the lot of the poor and destitute in the squalid and brutal slums of Cairo in Egypt, living in a small hut amongst the slum dwellers. Her immediate work was to improve the children’s hygiene and education and protect the women and children from terrible exploitation and wide scale abuse.
She travelled extensively and worked tirelessly to raise funds through Sister Emmanuelle Friends Association. Based in Brussels the charitable organisation established in 1980 has helped to create schools, clinics and dispensaries in many countries. Admired by young and old, rich and poor, she has forcefully pleaded the need for action in her humanitarian cause with several past and present world leaders.
Unorthodox nun
Sister Emmanuelle was called back to her congregation in France at aged 85 but would have preferred to remain amongst the poor and destitute. In her distinctive grey dress, headscarf and training shoes, this bespectacled and unorthodox nun first appeared on French television in 1990. Until recently she continued as “a prime time messenger for the poor”. She was revered in France for her ‘candour and caring’ as an outspoken advocate for the poor, destitute and homeless and was often voted high on the list amongst the most popular persons in France.
With determination and energy, she was frequently seen and heard with her mixture of infectious enthusiasm, humour and unquenched moral indignation with which she laid into the bourgeois complacency and political corruption. She was passionate and fearless in her campaign using the media and television to enlist public and wider support for her humanitarian cause. Sister Emmanuelle received the French L?gion d’Honneur in 2002.
Refusing to let religion get in the way of human needs she worked tirelessly to bring religious communities together. A favourite maxim was “Respect those who think differently”. In questioning Vatican policy, she expressed unorthodox religious views including approval of the use of contraception and the idea of allowing priests to marry and took a benign view about homosexuality.
She described herself as “vindictive”, “irascible” and “a little bit feminist” who had been in love but decided to devote instead herself to God. Amongst the bibliography, her book Confessions of a Nun that she wished to be published posthumously contains her enlightening life story.
The Arabic word ‘Yalla!’ or ‘Let’s go!’ used by Sister Emmanuelle was a leitmotif of this … unorthodox nun.
Ita Marguet, January 2009
Note: Acknowledgement is given to all sources used in preparation of this text.