Monday, 19 February 2018

L'Abbé Pierre and Emmaüs

I first 'met' l'Abbé Pierre back in 1995.

I was studying my first Open University course, Cadences, encouraged by my best friend Jeannie who was already a pretty fluent French speaker. We'd met at an Italian class and discovered that we were soul sisters, and we studied together for the Institute of Linguist Italian exams together. That led to me embarking on French and her starting to study for her French degree.

Jeannie died fifteen years ago, before completing her studies, while I went on to earn my degree in 2012, in French and English, of course, I did it for my friend as much as for myself.

Since 2015 I have also shared the breast cancer that killed Jeannie, life has a wicked sense of humour, I think.

I digress, as ever, but with good reason.

L'Abbé Pierre will always, in my mind, be associated with Jeannie, so who was he?

He has been variously described as: The French Mother Theresa, The Conscience Of A Country, A Living Saint.

L'Abbé Pierre (born Henri Antoine Grouès; 5 August 1912 - 22 January 2007) was a French Catholic priest, member of the Resistance during the World War II, and deputy of the Popular Republican Movement (MRP). He founded in 1949 the Emmaus movement, which has the goal of helping the poor, the homeless and the refugees.  (Wikipedia)

Abbé means abbot in French, and is also used as a courtesy title given to Catholic priests. He was one of the most popular figures in France, he probably still is.

For me it was the Emmaus organisation that first attracted my attention even before I knew that he had been a Resistance hero, had saved the lives of French Jews, been decorated etc etc.. Before I had learned of his efforts across the globe to relieve suffering and bring joy.

The winter of 1954 was bitterly cold in France and the homeless were freezing to death on the streets so L'Abbé Pierre broadcast the following radio appeal:

"My friends, come help... 
A woman froze to death tonight at 3:00 am, on the pavement of Sebastopol Boulevard, clutching the eviction notice which the day before had made her homeless... 

Each night, more than two thousand succumb to the cold, dying without food, without bread, many almost naked... 

Hear me; in the last three hours, two aid centers have been created: one under canvas at the foot of the Pantheon on Montagne Sainte-Genevieve Street; the other in Courbevoie. They are already overflowing, we must open more, in every neighbourhood. Tonight, in every town in France, in every quarter of Paris, we must hang out placards in the night, under a lamp, at the door of places where there are blankets, straw, soup; where one may read, under the title 'Fraternal Aid Center', these simple words: 'If you suffer, whoever you are, enter, eat, sleep, recover hope, here you are loved'.

The forecast is for a month of freezing weather. For as long as the winter lasts, for as long as the centres exist, faced with their brothers dying in poverty, all mankind must be of one will: the will to make this situation impossible. 

I beg of you, let us love one another enough to do it now. From so much pain, let a wonderful thing be given unto us: the shared spirit of France. Thank you! 

Everyone can help those who are homeless. We need, tonight, and at the latest tomorrow, five thousand blankets, three hundred big American tents, and two hundred catalytic stoves. Bring them quickly to the Hôtel Rochester, number ninety-two, laq Boetie The rendez-vous for volunteers and trucks to carry them; tonight at eleven, in front of the tent on Montagne Sainte-Genevieve. 

Thanks to you, no man, no child, will sleep on the asphalt or on the waterfronts of Paris tonight. 

Thank you" 

This speech touched the heart and conscience of a nation and resulted in an "uprising of kindness" (insurrection de la misère) with a staggering 500 million francs being raised in donations. A few weeks later, in March 1954, the Emmaus community was created with volunteers to assist the homeless by providing them with food and a roof over their heads and, more importantly, somewhere to work to raise the money to pay for the community.

In time many of the sans-abri became, themselves, volunteers in accordance with l'Abbé Pierre's desire to show that even those who have nothing, who are totally destitute, can still help others... no-one is completely helpless or without worth.

There were many, many other humanitarian roles upon which l'Abbé Pierre embarked. He travelled to the countries where he was needed and he wrote books, lectured and taught his message of love and charity and providing people with the means to help themselves.

His was a life of action and service rather than words and rhetoric.

So, if you do only one thing today to benefit others... If you take only one small step, please, read more about l'Abbé Pierre and see if his life doesn't provide you with the inspiration to help others and if his story doesn't make you feel humble and grateful for whatever you have been granted in this life then nothing ever will.

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