This article was originally published in 2011.
It has been updated – and shared – during the Holidays every year since.
I wrote this story to honor one of the most popular men who ever lived in France. That man was not a monarch, a president, or even a celebrity, quite the opposite, in fact. He was a priest and a sickly man, who doggedly led a lifelong struggle to help others. Many years after his death, he remains one of my countrymen’s favorite public figures. His is an incredible story. A story of courage, determination, controversy and deep humanity. It is the story of l’Abbé Pierre.
FGIS, Paris, France, December 2016
L’Abbé Pierre: the Reluctant French Icon
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)
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 mobilized as an N.C.O. (Non Commissioned Officer) but contracted pleurisy while training in Alsace. When France fell in 1940, 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 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 the formidable 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.”
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, 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.
Several Abbé Pierre interviews or documentaries are available on YouTube. You may also rent the 1989 movie “Hiver 1954: L’Abbé Pierre” [“Winter 1954: L’Abbé Pierre”] with Lambert Wilson.
Finally, a full English translation of the 1954 speech can be found here.