World needs Abbé Pierre’s vision of decency

Abbé Pierre photographed during the war. He worked with the Resistance in France – and was arrested twice by Nazis before fleeing to North Africa to join Charles De Gaulle’s Free French forces

He led an extraordinary life of charitableness, writes Samantha David, and as priest and founder of Emmaüs, Abbé Pierre still has something to teach the world today, some 12 years after he died in Paris

Abbé Pierre’s life story is inextricably tangled with 20th century French history. Born in 1912, Henri Marie Joseph Grouès was one of eight children in a wealthy Catholic family of silk traders in Lyon.

By the time he turned 16, he had decided to become a monk. He entered the Capuchin Order of Franciscans in 1931 and was ordained as a priest a year before the outbreak of the Second World War.

When war broke out, he was mobilised as a non-commissioned officer in the train transport corps, and helped Jewish people escape the Nazis by making false passports and guiding people to Switzerland. While working with the Resistance in Grenoble, he acquired the name ‘Abbé Pierre’. It stuck – and, as the century wore on, the moniker became known the world over.

In 1943, he met Lucie Coutaz, a fellow Resistance member who went on to become his assistant and personal secretary, a prime mover in setting up the international solidarity movement Emmaüs. Abbé Pierre was arrested twice by the Nazis, and fled to Algeria, where he joined De Gaulle’s Free French forces and became chaplain of a battleship based in Casablanca.

Emmaüs co-founder Lucie Coutaz

After the war, he became MP for Meurthe-et-Moselle, hoping to continue helping people, but he left his party (the ‘Popular ...

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