L’Abbé Pierre: The reluctant French icon

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-latest-iPhone-and-don’t-miss-Macy’s-umpteenth-One-Day-Sale.” Not to  worry: There are generous people out there. 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 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 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 hunger and poverty in the streets.

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, (the legislation eventually passed,) 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.  He is sorely missed.

Adieu, l’Abbé. On t’aimait bien.
So long, l’Abbé. We liked you.

A bientôt.

To learn more about l’Abbé Pierre’s inspiring life, watch the excellent 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.

Dear readers:

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What did you think about this article? Let me know in the comment section below, (I love reading your messages and reply to most.) Don’t be selfish and share with a friend! Merci. Véronique (French Girl in Seattle)


  • well just checking in and what to my wondering eyes should appear….but another excellent post…very interesting as well as INSPIRING.i respect this man’s vision and am awed at his tirelessness in execution of this mission. a life well spent! merry christmas v to you and all whom you love and my most sincere wishes for a happy healthy joyous new year!! hopeyour mil ejoys her time here.-g

  • Dearest Véronique,

    A belated Happy 1st anniversary of your EXCELLENT blog. Always so educational, even though it is quite familiar to me already. But it is such a pleasure for finding reassurance in the New World about our past and history.
    Love to you and wishing you a Merry Christmas!


  • I guess this is my all-time favorite post of Christmas 2011 of all I’ve read anywhere.

    While I love all the pretty images sailing around the Internet, the music clips, and the recipes I read but won’t make as am a eater of salads not of cakes. I am an American…but that is not synonymous with ‘shopper, materialism, gluttony, greed’ although by the looks of the landscape it would seem to be. My favorite people are the Saints like Joan of Arc, Bernadette, Terese, Francis de Sales and Francis of Assisi. Am sure l’Abbé Pierre will be on that list–as he should be.

    Thanks for a wonderful, true Christmas story.

  • I’m ashamed to say this is the first I have ever heard of l’Abbé Pierre. He seems like not only a very influential part of French history, but also the world. It is people like him who change the world, in fact.

    His story is incredibly inspiring and perfect to read about during this holiday season. Sometimes with all the stress associated with this time of year (tight work deadlines and Christmas shopping and holiday plans) it is very easy to forget Christmas should be a time of year to celebrate love and kindness and generosity. 🙂

  • — g — Welcome back, chère amie. I am happy you enjoyed hearing about l’Abbé Pierre. He was a very special man. Sending warm Holiday wishes to you and your family. I have enjoyed “chatting” with you in 2011 and will be looking forward to doing more of the same in 2012!
    — Katelyn — You’re welcome. I was hoping a lot of my readers would appreciate this story. I am glad you were one of them.
    — Mariette– Merci beaucoup! Happy Holidays to you too!
    — French Heart — Thank you for your heartfelt comment. Did you know that l’Abbé Pierre credited St Francis of Assisi for changing his life when he was a young man? Joyeux Noël.
    — Jennifer Fabulous — What a thoughtful comment. Thank you, my friend. Your Birkin book is on its way. Hope you get it before Christmas!
    — Olga — Exactly! Happy Holidays to you, my friend.
    — Veronique —–

  • Un choix parfait pour la semaine de Noel!J’ai toujours admiré son coté bouillonnant, chien fou,atypique, toujours au combat quelle que soit la cause à defendre. Un vrai travail de fond , sans le coté “people” si derangeant aujourd’hui. Il n’y a plus de gens comme lui me semble-t-il.Tu lui rends un tres bel hommage!
    Comme tu ne postes qu’une fois par semaine, je crois qu’il est temps de te souhaiter, ainsi qu’à ta famille, un tres joyeux noel!

  • Un personnage merveilleux et rempli de bonté qu’il était, tout comme soeur Thérésa ou soeur Emmanuelle…
    Une publication qui me touche beaucoup en cette période particulière de l’année…
    Que cette nuit de noël soit douce pour tous…
    Gros bisous

  • I am so glad that I didn’t miss this! I would have had you not mentioned this beautiful post in passing chez moi (my dashboard has been having hiccups). I have tears in my eyes. Such a wonderful tribute to an incredible man. Merci, Veronique!

  • — Malyss — Je pensais bien que tu apprécierais! 😉
    — Cherie — Je vous en prie. Thank you for stopping by.
    — Martine Alison — Merci de votre visite. Un homme remarquable, imparfait, mais si humain. Un homme, tout simplement.
    — Heather — Thank you for your visit. I knew you would like this story. did you ask Remi about l’Abbé Pierre?
    — The Fly in the Web– Very true. Many people tried to silence or imprison l’Abbé Pierre but he never let it happen. A good man.
    — Anni — A man who became an Association, a concept, a symbol. Not bad for a humble priest!


  • A beautiful Hommage a Abbé Pierre! When he left us in 2007 it was heart breaking. He was one in a million!

    Joyeux Noël and warmest greetings
    from the Périgord, South West of France,

  • I had heard of his passing in 2007 and believe that NPR broadcast a special on his life’s work. Your details are wonderful and the altruistic dedication has made an impact on so many lives.

    Again, you share such a rich story, le patrimoine de France.

    Merci, ma chère amie,

  • Bonsoir ma belle,

    Quelle histoire formidable, d’un homme, un veritable saint. Voilà, ce qu’il croyait, il faisait. Ce qu’il faisait a changé le monde autour de lui. Oh, que nos vies fassent pareil….et ma chère, merci pour tes mots de tendresse aujourd’hui….ma mère savait qu’un jour je voudrais écrire.

    Je te souhaite un Noël fabuleux et une année remplie de BONHEUR!!!!!!! BISES, Anita

  • Brilliant post, and such an important message all year round but particularly relevant at this time of the year! I had heard of Abbe Pierre, but had not read his full story, thank you so much, he was certainly an man among men, hopefully many more young men and women will be inspired by his convictions. btw I wanted to say many congratulations on the one year anniversary of your blog, but I felt a little shy at the time as it was the first time to comment, but a great achievement.

  • I first learned about L’Abbé Pierre just this past fall, in my AF French class. I had never known about him! I am so happy that you wrote about him here. It was such a joy learning about him. It makes me miss France, and it makes me want to move out there all the more, but I also want to be a part of something like this when I eventually DO get to move out there.

    Thank you for such a wonderful post!


  • — Karin, Genie, Splendid Market, Miss b., Richard, Anita, Helen, Peter, Virginia, Amber — Merci beaucoup, to all of you. Phew. This has been a busy week and I have not had a chance to sit down in front of the keyboard yet. I hope you all enjoyed a wonderful Christmas! My mother in law leaves tomorrow. She has had a great visit and I will blog about it next. A bientôt. Veronique (French Girl in Seattle)

  • What an absolutely wonderful tribute to l’Abbé Pierre. I knew about him and Emmaus but you have filled in so much more detail. Fantastic and thanks.

  • Dear Veronique, thanks for this very timely reminder of what caring and sharing is about – the spirit of Christmas as it were. L’abbé Pierre lives in the heart of the French people but the story shouldn’t stop there. Beautiful, beautiful post.

    May there be more caring and sharing in this world in 2012 – I think we’ll need it.

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