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by Richard Darlington
from Signs of the Times, No. 25 - Apr 2007
Abbé Pierre, who died on 22nd January at the age of 94, was the inspirational activist and founder of the Emmaus Movement.
Henri Grouès, better known by his Resistance pseudonym as Abbé Pierre, was loved and revered throughout France and the Catholic world as a tireless and effective human rights activist, and as the founder of the international Emmaus movement.
Born in 1912 into a devout and prosperous merchant family in Lyons, Henri was inspired by the experience of accompanying his father to a local centre for homeless people. He joined the Capuchins at the age of 19 and was ordained priest as a Capuchin friar in 1938.
A tireless human rights activist, Abbé Pierre founded the Emmaus Movement in 1949 which today has more than 400 Communities in 39 countries. There are now thirteen in the UK which offer a home and work to homeless men and women from Glasgow to Dover and to Bristol, with more on the way (see www.emmaus.org.uk).
Though a media celebrity and the recipient of many honours and decorations, Abbé Pierre remained what he termed "a flea in the ear of the great", never shying away from uttering uncomfortable truths. He saw service to those most in need as the joy and mission of his priesthood and yet he had the wisdom to make Emmaus secular so that no one would be put off because of religion. Even so he constantly reminded us to think about "les autres" (the others), the poor, the marginalised, the homeless.
This he did in abundance as this story illustrates:-
One night, a man called Georges, following release from 20 years in prison became homeless and despairing and tried to commit suicide. He was brought to Abbé Pierre who did not offer him help but instead asked for help from him to support homeless people. Georges later said "Whatever he might have given me - money, home, somewhere to work - I'd have still tried to kill myself. What I was missing, and what he offered, was something to live for." Indeed, the renewed sense of having something to live for, felt by the disciples after encountering the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus, is the reason for the Emmaus name.
I, personally, first met Abbé Pierre (already 79) in 1991 when we were working to establish the first UK Community near Cambridge. We only had a cow shed in a field. Abbé Pierre was sufficiently impressed that he arranged a gift of £30,000 from Emmaus International on the understanding that when the first Community was a success it should pass the money on to the next ones. Cambridge did just that within four years - they gave £1,000 a month for eight months to help Emmaus Mossley which I was helping to set up near Manchester in 1996.
For me Abbé Pierre and Emmaus provided a practical means of responding to my personal concerns for homeless men and women. A real inspiration.
Richard Darlington is a retired Emmaus trustee.