Sunday, February 2, 2014

We miss you, l'Abbé Pierre...


I had a fun little story to tell today... It involved the French, the Americans, and swear words. 

As I was about to start writing it, I bumped into a photo taken by blogger Eric Tenin. Eric had decided to honor one of the most popular men who ever lived in France. That man was not a monarch; a president; or even a celebrity; quite the opposite in fact. He was a priest, and a sickly man, who doggedly led a lifelong struggle to help others. Seven years after his death, he remains one of my countrymen's favorite public figures. His is an incredible story. A story of courage, determination, controversy and deep humanity. It is the story of l'Abbé Pierre

Sixty years ago, on February 1, 1954, l'Abbé Pierre famously called for solidarity on Radio Luxembourg, as poor, homeless French people were dying in the streets during a particularly harsh winter. Sixty years later, homelessness and a shortage of safe, affordable housing, are still concerns in France, and in many industrialized nations.

This week, I have decided to publish again the tribute I wrote in December 2011. I hope you enjoy it. 

L'Abbé Pierre: the Reluctant French Icon
December 2011

Today, I would like to tell you the story of a man who embodied Giving. France knows him as "l'Abbé Pierre." His face (the grey hair and beard, the big glasses, the béret,) and silhouette (the long, black cape, the heavy shoes, the cane,) are so familiar to my countrymen that a picture of l'Abbé Pierre hardly needs a caption. During his long life, he remained one of France's most unlikely, and yet most beloved public figures, topping popularity polls year after year, until his death, in January 2007.

La Fresque des Lyonnais (the famous Lyonnais fresco)
 Lyon,  France

L'Abbé Pierre (1912-2007) was born Henri Marie Joseph Grouès, in Lyon, to a well-heeled bourgeois family of eight children. His father had a strong social conscience and introduced Henri to charity work at a very young age. A devout catholic, Henri was determined to become a missionary. He attended a Jesuit school, and later renounced his inheritance to join a Franciscan monastery. He was ordained priest in 1938. Strict monastic life did not agree with him (he was plagued with health issues,) and he eventually left the monastery.

World War II broke out in 1939. He was mobilized as an N.C.O. (Non Commissioned Officer) but contracted pleurisy while training in Alsace. When France fell in 1940, he became vicar of the Grenoble cathedral. Throughout the war, he would take enormous risks to help others; enabling Jews and other politically persecuted to escape to Switzerland; joining the French Résistance where he operated under several code names including the now-famous "Abbé Pierre;" founding a clandestine newspaper; stealing clothing from warehouses for the poor and the Résistance. He was arrested in 1944 but managed to escape and joined General de Gaulle and the Free French Forces in Algiers. He continued fighting and received top French military honors at the end of the war.

A young Abbé Pierre listens to a speech by General de Gaulle in 1946

The war experience would mark him for life: From then on, he engaged himself to protect fundamental human rights and to fight for the causes he believed in. If legal means were not an option, then civil disobedience was all right too. 

He also knew how to use his reputation and growing fame, and his connections to politicians to further his cause, lecturing the formidable General de Gaulle, in January 1945 on the need for milk to feed babies.

Impatient, stubborn, unruly and outspoken, l'Abbé Pierre was soon to become a major influence in French society, an indefatigable fighter who led a life-long crusade against poverty and homelessness. His tactical weapons: Prayer, provocation, charity work and political action. 

After the war, L'Abbé Pierre was convinced to join the French Parliament where he worked as a député (representative,) from 1945 to 1951, but he quickly understood that he would be most efficient fighting misery in the street.

In 1949, using his lawmaker's indemnities after he had left the Parliament, he started a community outside of Paris to help the neediest members of society. He named the center "Emmaus," a town mentioned in the Gospel. His early companions were a motley crew of down-on-their-luck individuals. With them, he came up with the idea of a working community; organizing rag-picking and recycling of household goods to finance the construction of shelters for the homeless, often without construction permits. This was a far cry from traditional charity, as it encouraged the poor to fend for themselves. To those who had nothing, he brought not merely relief, but also purpose and hope. When money ran out, l'Abbé Pierre did not hesitate to take part in a TV game show to raise funds. Celebrities like Charlie Chaplin started supporting the movement as Emmaus grew steadily, first in France (where it is today one the largest NGOs,) then internationally after 1971 with the creation of Emmaus International.

"People are needed to take up the challenge, strong people, who proclaim the truth, throw it in people's faces, 
and do what they can with their own two hands."
-- L'Abbé Pierre.

1954: Laying the first stone of a new Emmaus-sponsored shelter
L'Abbé Pierre and the first Emmaus companions

But it is during the exceptionally cold winter of 1954 that L'Abbé Pierre became a living legend. An indignant Abbé issued a radio appeal on behalf of 5 million homeless people after a baby froze to death, and after a woman died on a Paris boulevard clutching her eviction notice in her frozen hand. In his famous speech, he challenged the French to heed their moral duty. The opening words caught everyone's attention: "My friends, come help... A woman froze to death tonight at 3:00am..." The French - no doubt remembering the privations endured during the war - listened, and donations poured in: Money, blankets, clothing, even jewelry and fur coats! My mother-in-law, a young girl at the time, remembers listening to the radio address with her family and walking down to the nearest temporary shelter with clothing and blankets. 

Throughout his life, l'Abbé Pierre used the power of the media
 to further his cause

The following morning, the press wrote of an "uprising of kindness" (insurrection de la bonté.) Over the next few weeks, donations were sorted out and distributed all over France, often through the emerging network of Emmaus communities where the homeless were given food and shelter. Emmaus volunteers were former homeless people who had learned to depend for survival on their own efforts, reselling refurbished furniture, books and scraps. L'Abbé Pierre was everywhere, delivering rousing speeches; visiting politicians to push for new legislation to forbid landlords from evicting tenants during winter months; holding the hands of women and children while visiting shelters. As a result of his tireless campaigning, the French government finally undertook a large program of housing reconstruction. 

Leaving the Elysée Palace after meeting with the French President (1954)

Years went by. L'Abbé Pierre did not slow down, always prompt to denounce injustice, not only in France but in the rest of the world where he was often seen with international leaders. Even when he turned down the Legion of Honor and other prestigious awards to protest the lack of official efforts towards the poor, he also understood the need to rub shoulders with politicians to get results. 

Always frank and often controversial, he wrote books about various topics, publicly disagreeing with Pope John Paul II on the issues of priest celibacy, the union of gay couples, the use of contraception, or the ordination of women as priests. 

There was controversy. There was media lynching when l'Abbé made unpopular choices, but the French public [a notoriously tough crowd] remained faithful to him. Then came old age, and failing health, and l'Abbé progressively retired out of the public eye. But there was always one more injustice, one more cause worth fighting for. So he would call the media; meet with officials; show up at the French Parliament, where the frail man would speak up from his wheelchair, his voice weak, but his commitment undiminished. At the end of his life, he accepted a few honors -reluctantly- and respectful crowds came to see him.

Finally accepting the prestigious Legion of Honor
awarded by President Chirac in 2001
L'Abbé Pierre meets l'Abbé Pierre in 2005

It was finally time for the man President Chirac called: "A great figure, a conscience, an incarnation of goodness," to take his final bow. He died after a long illness, at the age of 94. Statesmen, celebrities, companions of Emmaus and the French public attended his funeral celebrated at Notre-Dame cathedral, on January 26, 2007. L'Abbé's companions were placed at the front of the congregation, according to his last wishes. His iconic béret, cape and cane lay on top of the coffin during the funeral service.

A big funeral for a man who aspired to a simple, monastic life

Henri Grouès - l'Abbé Pierre - rests in a small cemetery in Esteville, a small village north of Rouen, in Normandy. At peace at last, (one would hope,) he is in good company, surrounded by several of his early companions and friends. At his request, his grave is anonymous, but it is easy to find, thanks to all the flowers left by visitors. 

L'Abbé Pierre (1912-2007): French patriot, human being. Led a life of action and service and knew a thing or two about giving.  

Adieu, l'Abbé. On t'aimait bien.
So long, l'Abbé. We liked you.
A bientôt.


To learn more about l'Abbé Pierre's inspiring life, watch this excellent documentary (2 video clips, about 18 minutes.) It is utterly frustrating, however, as the second part stops around 1949 when Emmaus, the organization founded by l'Abbe Pierre, was taking off. Still, a great look at his early years and his rise to fame.

You may also rent the 1989 movie "Hiver 1954: L'Abbé Pierre" ["Winter 1954: L'Abbé Pierre"] with Lambert Wilson. 

Finally, a full English translation of the 1954 speech can be found here  


  1. Bonjour. Thanks for repeating the story of L'Abbé Pierre. Believe it or not, I have never heard his story or heard anything about him despite living in France while he was still alive back in the 60's. Have a great week. A bientot.

    1. Bonjour Michel. Well, it is never too late to hear the story of this generous man, so here you go. You're welcome. :-)

  2. Dearest Véronique,
    This post did make me cry... Probably because I just had published my post about World Leprosy Day: where I write about our project in Indonesia and our visits to the hospital to meet with those leprosy victims. The very hospital where Princess Diana went in 1989 (link is in my post).
    Crying because those poor leprosy victims NEED a person like Abbé Pierre, for getting the media involved. With Princess Diana being such a public figure, she did draw full media coverage for the leprosy people but when she died it abruptly stopped. That makes me so sad... Millions of people suffer with disfigured bodies because of the disease and they still face the harsh stigma and ostracism.
    The media does not pay any attention because it does not fit into their political correct agenda.
    Abbé Pierre went against the law and through his controversion and determination he moved literally mountains or moved people over the mountains. What a GREAT person he was!
    Thanks for sharing this again and this time around it did touch me in a very special way. Guess I need to talk to Abbé...

    1. Dear Mariette. I will go over and read your post later today. In the meantime, I agree that it takes very special people to draw the media and the public's attention to worthwhile causes. Princess Diana was one (even if she found her calling later in her short life,) and so was l'Abbé Pierre. Both were charismatic people, who were media savvy and knew how to get politicians' attention. In the world we live in, you can't just be a *good* person. You also have to be smart and know how to use the right channels to get the word out and the ball rolling (even if it means being controversial at time, as l'Abbé very well knew.) Thank you for stopping by.

  3. Replies
    1. Ah, Coluche. Je l'aimais bien, lui aussi, Encore un qui est parti trop tôt. Lui et l'Abbé étaient séparés par au moins une génération, mais, il se sont battus pour les démunis (je pense aux Restaus du Coeur pour Coluche,) et avec beaucoup d'énergie et un goût prononcé pour la mise en scène. Ces deux là n'auraient pas supporté d'être "balayés" sous le tapis et ignorés, et tant mieux.

  4. As soon as I read the title, the name rang a bell! Of course I remember reading about L'Abbé Pierre here on your blog but December 2011, how time flies! I found this story just as moving the second time around. A truly inspirational and selfless person. Great post and you have shown again that you are able to write about both sensitive issues as well as the fun and lighthearted topics! Regular readers know this already though! Have a good week Véronique.

    1. Well, merci beaucoup miss b. I remember spending a lot of time researching, then writing that story, and I learned a lot while doing it. L'Abbé Pierre was certainly worth the effort! Thank you for following the blog for so long and for always making the time to leave a comment. I will head over to yours later today after my French classes. Bonne semaine.

  5. Replies
    1. Yes it is an inspirational story. I am glad you enjoyed it. A bientôt.

  6. Replies
    1. Difficult to summarize such a life in just a few paragraphs, but as the French say: "L'essentiel y est..." (the most important parts are there.) Thank you for your visit.

  7. How dearly he is missed and how much we could use his spirit of generosity and connectedness today! Hope you are well, Vero...

    1. I am well, Heather. How is life in Southern France? I need to swing over to your blog and catch up. I have been a little too busy to visit my friends lately…

  8. Very inspiring! I have heard of the Emmaus institutions in various countries, but had no idea about it's founder. People like him shouldn't ever die, they do so much good they should be able to live forever!

    1. I agree Sami. L'Abbé had a very long and fruitful life. I guess he deserved to rest, after all of his hard work.

  9. What an inspirational man. I learned about him originally from my French friend, who was all too happy to educate me about him. I wish that we knew more about him here in the US! He's done so much!!

    1. He certainly has, Amber. It sounds as if you enjoyed your Paris visit. Staying with a local makes all the difference in the world, doesn't it?


Bonjour! I love hearing from you, my readers. To quote a fellow blogger, my friend Owen, "Comments are the icing on blogcake... Comments are the UFO in the twilight sky bearing news from other planets... Comments are raspberry vinegar in salad dressing... Comments are the cool balm of after-sun moisturizing lotion... Comments are the moment the band comes back out onstage to play an encore... Comments are the gleam in the eye across the room in a smoky bar... Comments are the rainbow after the rainstorm..." Merci for your comments! French Girl in Seattle