A Man of Humanity: Abb? Pierre (1912-2007)

Abb? Pierre died in Paris on 22 January 2007 aged 94. Founder of Emmaus and one of the most popular figures in France, his death caused shock around the world, particularly for those to whom he devoted his life and work. They came with thousands of mourners to pay their respects prior to the national funeral service held at the cathedral of Notre-Dame followed by a private burial. He was laid to rest in France at his chosen place amongst the Emmaus companions.
His mission in life was to be the ’voice of people without a voice’. He exerted relentless pressure on politicians, and others, to defend the destitute and homeless in acknowledging their dignity principally through providing adequate shelter, food and clothing. He used the media as part of his campaign to seek support amongst the wider public for his causes.
As social activist and militant, he was vociferous in his rebellion against political and social injustice and openly disagreed with the Church and Vatican on some issues. He was received by many of the world’s political, social and spiritual leaders, including three Popes.
The biography and bibliography of this courageous and controversial French Catholic priest are well documented, as are the national and international recognitions he received for his selfless devotion to the destitute and homeless.
Man of Humanity
Abb? Pierre was born Henri Antoine Grou?s on 5 August 1912 to a pious family of silk merchants in Lyon. The fifth of eight children, he was afflicted with lung disease that often interrupted his studies at the Jesuit secondary school and theological faculty. From an early age he was drawn to a life in service of others and felt a long and fervent call to death. He gave his inheritance to charity and entered a monastery at nineteen.
He joined the Capuchins, one of the three independent branches of the Franciscan order, and was ordained into the priesthood on 24 August 1938. His poor health caused him to leave the rigours of monastic life following which he survived a series of near fatal accidents.
He adopted the name Abb? Pierre while serving in the wartime resistance when, amongst other activity, he helped with arranging documents to assist Jews in escaping to Switzerland. He was arrested twice by the Gestapo and escaped. He met General de Gaulle in Algeria on 17 June 1944. After the war he entered politics for a time, being elected in 1945 as Deputy for Meurthe et Moselle.
The freezing winter of 1954 brought Abb? Pierre’s radio appeal for food and shelter to stop people dying on the streets. The broadcast unleashed a flood of generosity later called the « uprising of goodwill ». A striking figure with his white beard framed by the black cape a fireman gave him that winter he was repeatedly compared with Mother Teresa and voted France’s most popular personality for his tireless campaigning in favour of the destitute and homeless.
His work continued with the creation of the Abb? Pierre Foundation from 1987 and his grass roots involvement in the social and political causes that he championed. For a while he preferred to avoid the public spotlight. More recently he sought the quiet of his spiritual home with solitary periods spent in reflection.
Emmaus community
The name Emmaus is defined as Way to, Supper at, and Return from. It refers to a place about seven miles from Jerusalem that is drawn from the biblical text in the Gospel of Luke … where two disciples offered hospitality to Jesus after his resurrection without recognising him.
In 1949 Abb? Pierre founded the first Emmaus workers’ hostel in the Paris region where a small community formed. A secular organisation, it has grown into Emmaus International with over 300 associations in forty countries. Its aim is to help the poor and homeless people and refugees by offering various services and activities. They work as companions, receive free lodging and food and can benefit from training and other services towards improving their lives after Emmaus.
Balzan Prize
Acknowledging this Man of Humanity, Abb? Pierre received the Balzan Prize for Humanity, Peace and Brotherhood amongst peoples … « For having fought throughout his life for the defence of human rights, democracy and peace, For having entirely dedicated himself to helping relieve spiritual and physical suffering, For having inspired – regardless of nationality, race or religion – universal solidarity with the Emmaus communities. »
Ita Marguet
Note: Acknowledgement is given to all sources used in preparation of this article.
Photo Credit : www.emmaus-internatinal.org