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.
After the war, he became MP for Meurthe-et-Moselle, hoping to continue helping people, but he left his party (the ‘Popular Republican Movement’) in 1950 following an accident in which a manual labourer died in Brest.
Denouncing his party’s attitude he joined a Christian Socialist movement but ultimately decided to leave politics and return to helping people directly.
He spent the rest of his life pushing for a fairer society, with more equality and help for those in need.
He often recounted a story of being called out in an emergency in 1949, to talk to a suicidal man standing on a bridge in Neuilly-Plaisance.
The man, Georges Legay, asked why he should not commit suicide when he did not want to live.
Abbé Pierre replied: “If you have no use left for your life, give it to me. I can’t help you, but you can help me to help others.”
He needed Georges’ life and energy, he explained, to help with his marathon task of housing the homeless.
Georges Legay agreed, and became the first Emmaüs ‘companion’; a man who had given up hope but could still offer hope to others. Shortly afterwards, Abbé Pierre replaced the local road sign with a new homemade sign: Emmaüs.
The name has its roots in the Gospel of Luke. It recounts the story of two companions who were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaüs the day after Jesus’s tomb had been found empty.
Despondent and depressed, they invited another traveller to walk with them and when they arrived at Emmaüs, asked him to eat with them.
At that moment they saw the stranger was none other than Jesus Christ, resurrected. They had arrived tired and hopeless, but in Emmaüs were filled with joy and hope. The stranger disappeared and the two men hurried back to Jerusalem to spread the news that Jesus was risen.
Abbé Pierre, Georges Legay and Lucie Coutaz were all instrumental in setting up Emmaüs. It started with a dilapidated house in Neuilly-Plaisance which Abbé Pierre was doing up.
Homeless people could come and stay he said, but the house filled up quickly, so he erected tents in the garden. They also filled up. Finding the money to feed everyone was impossible, so the idea was born to search through rubbish for items that could be repaired and resold.
By 1951, Emmaüs had become a formal association, and in February 1954, during a deadly winter, Abbé Pierre made his now-famous radio appeal for funds. He received massive donations of money and goods from all over France, as well as 2million French francs from Charlie Chaplin. The actor said: “I’m not giving this money away, I’m giving it back to the little tramp.”
Within four years, Emmaüs was not only housing the homeless, but also offering employment contracts repairing and reselling donated items of all sorts; clothes, books, appliances, furniture, records, toys, flower pots, furnishings, china, kitchen equipment, cots – absolutely anything and everything.
In 1964, another Georges – Georges Lanfry, a self-employed builder from Rouen – gave Abbé Pierre a massive wrecked mansion standing on several acres of land in Esteville, Normandy.
It was renovated and named ‘La Halte d’Emmaüs’. Abbé Pierre lived in the property from 1964 onwards. He, Lucie Coutaz, and Georges Legay are buried in the commune.
Emmaüs’ current director, Philippe Dupont, said working there has changed his attitude to life. “When I got the job, it was just a job, but now I judge people less harshly. I have grown in humility and justice. I see how great is the need, how many people live in terrible poverty, in France and worldwide.”
The estate is a ‘Lieu de mémoire de l’Abbé Pierre’ rather than a museum, he said. “There are no glass cases full of his belongings. We don’t fetishise his glasses, or his pen.
“This is a centre for memory, where we celebrate his achievements. Abbé Pierre was a pacifist, a resistant, a politician, a man who defended the poor and the oppressed all over the world.
“He built houses, set up micro-loan schemes, help conferences worldwide, igniting people to act themselves.”
Esteville is not a classic Emmaüs in that it does not house a community of compagnons and only recovers and resells two categories of goods: books and toys. “It gives us a small income because we don’t get any grants. The centre is financed by other Emmaüs centres and by its visitors.”
There is also a gift shop selling books by Abbé Pierre, and two gîtes which can house 20 people in all. Groups go for two or three days; some use the conference room. They also have a dining room (independent from the cooking facilities in the gîtes) for people who just spend the day there.
“We have developed an educational programme, to teach people about Abbé Pierre’s actions, including Emmaüs, and about civic life. We explain about volunteering; about being non-judgemental, we explain the role of associations, how solidarity works, how people can help each other. We introduce them to professions in which people help others.”
Sometimes, he said, adults arrive at the Halte having never helped anyone in their lives. “No-one around them does it, so they don’t even think about it. So we invite young people from collège and lycée to come here because people really need to be taught about helping others.”
As well as running the educational programme, staff and volunteers at Esteville organise exhibitions, sales and commemorative events. “In January we visit the tomb of Abbé Pierre; we also have a spring exhibition of ‘art brut’ [sometimes also called ‘naive art’, which can also include graffiti] because this is often the art of outsiders.
“We have a fête for children in August, and an exhibition of Abbé Pierre’s photos in the autumn.”
The founding father often talked about la colère de l’amour, the anger he felt on behalf of the people who he loved and who suffered injustice. “He wasn’t talking about losing his temper, but about a driving force to find solutions, either concrete and immediate, or long-term.
“In his life, he advanced international human rights, was instrumental in making it illegal for landlords to expel tenants during the winter.
“He established Emmaüs as an international movement in 1971, and until his death in 2007 at the ago of 94, he never stopped travelling, meeting leaders and agitating on behalf of the poorest.”
Mr Dupont said that wealth inequality means people suffer and die. According to him, ill-treated children, minors in danger, mentally-ill people, immigrants, homeless, poor retired people and ex-prisoners are not given the help
they need in France.
“They get no help at all. People use economics to excuse it, but it’s inexcusable. Four million people in France are ‘mal-logé’ (badly-housed); 150,000 are homeless.
“We don’t build enough houses to house everyone in France, but there are other problems, too.
“Anyone can lose their job, get ill, divorced, break down, drop out. It happens very fast, and it could happen to almost any of us. We need housing, social assistance, and sheltered housing. We have to do it.”
In the 21st century, Abbé Pierre’s lifelong struggle to help the poor continues.