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At 89, still tackling injustice

The founding of Emmaüs and its remarkable growth not just in France but throughout the world is due to a celebrated figure in France, the Abbé Pierre. Born in 1912, Fr. Henri Groués took the name of the Abbé Pierre during World War II when he was a member of the French Resistance and smuggled Jews from occupied France into Switzerland.

Denounced to the Gestapo, the Abbé Pierre fled to North Africa where he joined the Free French forces stationed in Algeria’s capital, Algiers. After the war, he was elected to the French parliament where he spoke out for homeless and unemployed people and opened his own home to homeless men. Eventually 18 homeless men shared his home in the Paris suburb of Neuilly Plaisance. Abbé Pierre is said to have spent his entire salary buying war-surplus materials for them to put up temporary homes, initially in his own large garden.

The genesis of Emmaüs dates from a meeting in 1948 between the Abbé Pierre and Georges, a convict whom he saved from suicide and whose assistance he asked in helping others. In 1949 the Ragpickers of Emmaüs was formally established. Five years later, in 1954, the Abbé Pierre launched an appeal on French radio. On a cold winter’s day, a woman was found frozen to death on the streets. The Abbé Pierre delivered an emotional call for help to the French public that stirred the conscience of the nation. It led to an outpouring of charitable donations and prompted government action to help the homeless.

Since that time, the Abbé Pierre has been a constant advocate for the poor, the homeless and the socially excluded. At the same time, he has rubbed shoulders with some of the most eminent personalities of his time. A vice president of the World Confederation, a universal federalist movement, the Abbé Pierre with the renowned French writers André Gide and Albert Camus founded in 1947 the committee of support for Gary Davis, an American who called for world government and renounced his citizenship before the United Nations, declaring himself the first world citizen. A biography of the Abbé Pierre shows photos of him with Charlie Chaplin, former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower. In 1981, the Abbé Pierre was named an officer in the Legion of Honor. Seated beside Pope John Paul II in 1989, he was bold enough to suggest that the pope retire when he turned 75.

A scandal erupted in 1996 when the Abbé Pierre defended a longtime friend, Roger Garaudy, who published a controversial book “The Founding Myths of Israeli Politics” that suggested that fewer than 6 million Jews may have died in the Holocaust. The Abbé Pierre was denounced for defending the book and expelled from The International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism, of which he had been a member for decades.

The furor does not seem to have done the Abbé Pierre any lasting harm in the eyes of the French public. Now 89, the Abbé Pierre continues to top opinion polls as the most popular personality in France.

Revered as the conscience of France, the Abbé Pierre has in recent years championed the cause of immigrants in France.

“The man is in his 80s and he still gets out and does what he started to do. That’s the whole idea: If you see an injustice, you work to change it. He’s very humble. He doesn’t like to be considered a celebrity,” said Redemptorist Fr. Randy Eldridge, volunteer coordinator and marketing coordinator of Homeworkers Organized for More Employment (H.O.M.E.), an Emmaus (spelled without the umlaut in the United States) community in Orland, Maine.

Founded in 1970, H.O.M.E. is a cooperative community dedicated to economic and social reconstruction. Homeless people work in the recycling bargain barn H.O.M.E. operates or in its soup kitchen or food bank. Begun as an outlet for rural home crafters’ goods, H.O.M.E. now also runs a free medical clinic, six homeless shelters, a learning center with daycare, literacy and GED tutoring, and offers alternative high school and college-level programs and job and craft training.

During the civil unrest in Guatemala during the 1990s, H.O.M.E was a stop on the underground railroad for Guatemalan refugees fleeing from Central America to Canada. The Maine community helped start a new Emmaus community in Guatemala in 1997.

In the last 10 years, new Emmaüs communities have also been started in Eastern Europe -- in Lithuania, Poland, Estonia and Russia.

--Margot Patterson

National Catholic Reporter, February 8, 2002