Monthly Archives: December 2012

Joyeux Noël and a Happy New Year to all!

Joyeux Noël and a Happy New Year to all!


A note to my readers:

I do not often post the same story twice. 

This week’s story remains a favorite of mine, and I have decided to publish it again, just a few days before Christmas. 

Following tragic recent events, we all need to focus on the positive, and the good that is everywhere around us. We all need – and want – to be inspired.

My respect for the great man featured in this story is undiminished. I hope you enjoy reading it.

Thank you for following the blog this year. Thank you for your weekly visits; your comments; most importantly, thank you for your friendship. I am a lucky French Girl!

L’Abbé Pierre, the reluctant French icon 
(originally published on December 20, 2011)

‘Tis the season of giving…
(photo from
Buried knee-deep in wrapping paper; shoved over by frustrated crowds at the local mall; defeated by piles of greeting cards that had to be sent yesterday; many might forget that the Holiday season is not just about shopping, wrapping or ticking things off an endless to-do list. For when they say “”Tis the season of giving,” surely, they mean more than: “You-have-to-snatch-the-iPhone4s-and-don’t-miss-Macy’s-umpteenth-One-Day-Sale.” Not to  worry: Americans are a generous bunch, and this year, many will take time out of their frenzied schedule to help out at a local charity; volunteering at their kids’ schools; making donations to causes dear to their heart. They will also remember to be grateful for their relatives and friends and will celebrate the Holidays in style, as they should. 
Today, I would like to tell you the story of a man who embodied Giving. France knows him as “l’Abbé Pierre.” His face (the grey hair and beard, the big glasses, the béret,) and silhouette (the long, black cape, the heavy shoes, the cane,) are so familiar to my countrymen that a picture of l’Abbé Pierre hardly needs a caption. During his long life, he remained one of France’s most unlikely, and yet most beloved public figures, topping popularity polls year after year, until his death, in January 2007.
La Fresque des Lyonnais (the famous Lyonnais fresco)
Lyon,  France
L’Abbé Pierre (1912-2007) was born Henri Marie Joseph Grouès, in Lyon, to a well-heeled bourgeois family of eight children. His father had a strong social conscience and introduced Henri to charity work at a very young age. A devout catholic, Henri was determined to become a missionary. He attended a Jesuit school, and later renounced his inheritance to join a Franciscan monastery. He was ordained priest in 1938. Strict monastic life did not agree with him (he was plagued with health issues,) and he eventually left the monastery.
World War II broke out in 1939. He was mobilised as an NCO (Non Commissioned Officer) but contracted pleurisy while training in Alsace. When France fell, he became vicar of the Grenoble cathedral. Throughout the war, he would take enormous risks to help others; enabling Jews and other politically persecuted to escape to Switzerland; joining the French Résistance where he operated under several code names including the now-famous “Abbé Pierre;” founding a clandestine newspaper; stealing clothing from warehouses for the poor and the Résistance. He was arrested in 1944 but managed to escape and joined General Charles de Gaulle and the Free French Forces in Algiers. He continued fighting and received top French military honors at the end of the war.
A young Abbé Pierre listens to a speech by General de Gaulle in 1946
The war experience would mark him for life: From then on, he engaged himself to protect fundamental human rights and to fight for the causes he believed in. If legal means were not an option, then civil disobedience was all right too. 
He also knew how to use his reputation and growing fame, and his connections to politicians to further his cause, lecturing formidable French leader General de Gaulle, in January 1945 on the need for milk to feed babies!
Impatient, stubborn, unruly and outspoken, l’Abbé Pierre was soon to become a major influence in French society, an indefatigable fighter who led a life-long crusade against poverty and homelessness. His tactical weapons: Prayer, provocation, charity work and political action. 
After the war, L’Abbé Pierre was convinced to join the French Parliament where he worked as a député (representative,) from 1945 to 1951, but he quickly understood that he would be most efficient fighting misery in the street.
In 1949, using his lawmaker’s indemnities after he had left the Parliament, he started a community outside of Paris to help the neediest members of society. He named the center “Emmaus,” a town mentioned in the Gospel. His early “companions” were a motley crew of down-on-their-luck individuals. With them, he came up with the idea of a working community; organizing rag-picking and recycling of household goods to finance the construction of shelters for the homeless, often without construction permits. This was a far cry from traditional charity, as it encouraged the poor to fend for themselves. To those who had nothing, he brought not merely relief, but also purpose and hope. When money ran out, l’Abbé Pierre did not hesitate to take part in a TV game show to raise funds. Celebrities like Charlie Chaplin started supporting the movement as Emmaus grew steadily, first in France (where it is today one the largest NGOs,) then internationally after 1971 with the creation of Emmaus International.
People are needed to take up the challenge, strong people, who proclaim the truth, throw it in people’s faces, and do what they can with their own two hands.
– L’Abbé Pierre.
1954: Laying the first stone of a new Emmaus-sponsored shelter
L’Abbé Pierre and the first Emmaus companions
But it is during the exceptionally cold winter of 1954 that L’Abbé Pierre became a living legend. An indignant Abbé issued a radio appeal on behalf of 5 million homeless people after a baby froze to death, and after a woman died on a Paris boulevard clutching her eviction notice in her frozen hand. In his famous speech, he challenged the French to heed their moral duty. The opening words caught everyone’s attention: “My friends, come help… A woman froze to death tonight at 3:00am…” The French – no doubt remembering the privations endured during the war – listened, and donations poured in: Money, blankets, clothing, even jewelry and fur coats! My mother-in-law, who was a young girl at the time, remembers listening to the radio address with her family and walking down to the nearest temporary shelter with clothing and blankets. 
Throughout his life, l’Abbé Pierre used the power of the media
to further his cause
The following morning, the press wrote of an “uprising of kindness” (insurrection de la bonté.) Over the next few weeks, donations were sorted out and distributed all over France, often through the emerging network of Emmaus communities where the homeless were given food and shelter. Emmaus volunteers were former homeless people who had learned to depend for survival on their own efforts, reselling refurbished furniture, books and scraps. L’Abbé Pierre was everywhere, delivering rousing speeches; visiting politicians to push for new legislation to forbid landlords from evicting tenants during winter months; holding the hands of women and children while visiting shelters. As a result of his tireless campaigning, the French government finally undertook a large program of housing reconstruction. 
Leaving the Elysée Palace after meeting with the French President (1954)
Years went by. L’Abbé Pierre did not slow down, always prompt to denounce injustice, not only in France but in the rest of the world where he was often seen with international leaders. Even when he turned down the Legion of Honor and other prestigious awards to protest the lack of official efforts towards the poor, he also understood the need to rub shoulders with politicians to get results. 
Always frank and often controversial, he wrote books about various topics, publicly disagreeing with Pope John Paul II on the issues of priest celibacy, the union of gay couples, the use of contraception, or the ordination of women as priests. 
There was controversy. There was media lynching when l’Abbé made unpopular choices, but the French public [a notoriously tough crowd] remained faithful to him. Then came old age, and failing health, and l’Abbé progressively retired out of the public eye. But there was always one more injustice, one more cause worth fighting for. So he would call the media; meet with officials; show up at the French Parliament, where the frail man would speak up from his wheelchair, his voice weak, but his commitment undiminished. At the end of his life, he accepted a few honors -reluctantly- and respectful crowds came to see him.
Finally accepting the prestigious Legion of Honor
awarded by President Chirac in 2001
L’Abbé Pierre meets l’Abbé Pierre in 2005
It was finally time for the man President Chirac called: “A great figure, a conscience, an incarnation of goodness,” to take his final bow. He died after a long illness, at the age of 94. Statesmen, celebrities, companions of Emmaus and the French public attended his funeral celebrated at Notre-Dame cathedral, on January 26, 2007. L’Abbé‘s companions were placed at the front of the congregation, according to his last wishes. His iconic béret, cape and cane lay on top of the coffin during the funeral service.
A big funeral for a man who aspired to a simple, monastic life
Henri Grouès – l’Abbé Pierre – rests in a small cemetery in Esteville, a small village North of Rouen, in Normandy. At peace at last, (one would hope,) he is in good company, surrounded by several of his early companions and friends. At his request, his grave is anonymous, but it is easy to find, thanks to all the flowers left by visitors. 
L’Abbé Pierre (1912-2007): French patriot, human being. Led a life of action and service and knew a thing or two about giving.  
Adieu, l’Abbé. On t’aimait bien.
So long, l’Abbé. We liked you.
A bientôt, et Joyeux Noël, mes amis!
To learn more about l’Abbé Pierre’s inspiring life, watch this excellent documentary (3 video clips.) 



You may also rent the 1989 movie “Hiver 1954: L’Abbé Pierre” [“Winter 1954: L’Abbe Pierre”] with Lambert Wilson. 
Finally, a full English translation of the 1954 speech can be found here  

48 Responses to Joyeux Noël and a Happy New Year to all!

  1. What a wonderful story. Thank you so much. You know the saying “it warms my heart” well, my heart actually felt warm while I read this. Too many Christmas cookies? Well, yes, but I loved learning about this sweet man. Happiest of Holidays to you and your lovely family.

  2. LOVE…France has so many wonderful people with fascinating stories. Am going to reread this. I also loved Pierre Teilhard de Chardin…another exceptional member of France’s clergy ranks.

    Very Happy Christmas and New Year’s to you and your family Veronique….

    (You’re so right re Newtown stunningly senseless and tragic)

  3. Merry Christmas Veronique! A beautiful post and glad you re-posted for those of us who didn’t ‘know’ you last year. Looking forward to meeting you in person one day soon. Have a great holiday with your visiting family members!

  4. I remember this post! I was in French class at the AF, and I announced that I had never heard of the L’Abbe Pierre. My teacher’s eyes widened and gasped. “What?” she said. The very next week you posted this post.

    Such a kind man with a beautiful heart. What a wonderful post in light of the dark recent events.


  5. Veronique, I’m late arriving but want to wish you and your family a very Happy New Year and all the best for 2013. Thanks for sharing the story of this remarkable man………Hugs from Texas ~ Sarah

  6. I think the story of Abbe Pierre will be as wonderfully inspiring each time as it was the first Veronique. I’m sure you had a wonderful Christmas with your visiting French family..have a fabulous New Year, looking forward to catching up in the new year oui!

    • It has been a hectic, but good Christmas here in the Pacific Northwest, Grace. My mother-in-law has now returned home and we will be celebrating the new year tomorrow with dear friends… See you in 2013! Enjoy the beautiful Australian summer, lucky girl!

  7. A beautiful story, Veronique and an inspirational life. Thanks so much for sharing it with us. Thanks also for your kind and encouraging comment on my last post. It meant a lot! Happy New Year to you, Veronique, and wishes for a beautiful 2013.

  8. Ma chère véronique bonjour,

    L’Abbé Pierre est un homme qui restera toujours dans le coeur de chacun un personnage exceptionnel… Il nous manque…
    Ta publication est un hommage extrêmement beau… Je n’ai pas de mots pour exprimer tout ce que je ressens… L’Abbé Pierre est un sujet de philosophie… Il y a tant à dire.

    J’espère que ton Noêl fut joyeux et à quelques heures de la nouvelle année, je te renouvelle tous mes voeux de bonheur pour toi et ceux que tu aimes…

    Gros bisous.

    • Chère Martine. Tu as raison, c’était un homme unique. On n’en verra peut-être plus comme lui. C’était une autre époque aussi… Si j’ai pu faire découvrir l’Abbé Pierre à nos amis étrangers grâce à ce modeste hommage, j’en suis très heureuse. Excellent réveillon à toi, et au Toucan, bien sûr. On se retrouve en 2013 alors?

  9. My word…You brought tears to my eyes. What a beautiful story. Thank you. This is the first time I stumbled upon your blog, I will read your blog in the new year and many more I hope;) Bless you and yours….Happy New Year !

  10. I am so very glad you recounted this story, for this is my first visit to your blog and I wouldn’t have found it otherwise! I had heard a bit of this wonderful man and Emmaus but didn’t know much beyond that. Thank you for sharing.

  11. Bonjour Veronique! I´ve been looking for treasures at the local Emmaus since moving to France, but never knew what a great story was behind it! So inspiring for the holidays or anyday. Merci!

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