“I want to be the poorest of the poor! My place is not amongst you but cut off from the world, in a cloister.”
Henri Grouès was born in Lyon on 5th August 1912 into a very religious family. The fifth of eight children, he was only 11 years old when his father took him to provide care for the poor in the Cité Rambaud in Lyon. This encounter marked young Henri for life.
Henri studied at the Jesuit College in Lyon and joined the Capuchin Order, where he stayed for seven years. Having renounced his inheritance, he took the name of Brother Philippe and was ordained as a priest on 24th August 1938.
However, his fragile health forced him to leave monastic life. He was relieved of his vows and joined the Diocese of Grenoble on the eve of the Second World War.
“One can only win people over by giving oneself”
Thanks to his knowledge of the mountains, from 1942 he supported victims of World War 2 by guiding them to Switzerland. As a member of the French Resistance, from 1943, he guided resistance fighters to the Chartreuse and Vercors resistance guerrilla bands. He was helped by Lucie Coutaz, his secretary, who founded the Emmaus Movement with him. It was at this time, when he was being hunted by the Gestapo and the Milice (a paramilitary force created by the Vichy regime) that he took on the pseudonym of « Abbé Pierre ».
Arrested in Cambo-les-Bains (in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques region of France) having been informed against, Abbé Pierre managed to escape and travelled to Algeria, where he met General De Gaulle for the first time.
Keen to help the neediest members of society, he welcomed into his Neuilly-Plaisance (Val-de-Marne) home, which became an international youth hostel, young people from throughout the world who had lost hope following the horrors committed during the war.
Named Emmaus, after the village where the disciples regained hope when they recognised Jesus on Easter Monday, the hostel subsequently became an accommodation centre for adults and then for families experiencing difficulties.
Working with the first Emmaus companions, who were called to help in order to bring meaning to their lives, Abbé Pierre built houses and emergency camps without holding a construction permit.
Following his famous appeal “My friends, come and help…” on 1st February 1954, he received 10 billion francs from Parliament with which he built 12,000 emergency homes in France.
“The whole movement is based on this idea, that by saving others one saves oneself.”
Abbé Pierre was in demand and began to travel the world. He witnessed the creation of Emmaus communities in all the regions of the world.
Aware of the fragile nature of his initiative, he made the Emmaus Movement into an official organisation at the end of the 1960s. Emmaus International, a liaison and mutual support organisation for worldwide members, was created on 4th July 1971.
Once the movement had been structured, Abbé Pierre no longer took part in the day-to-day management of the groups. However, his public pronouncements were always eagerly awaitedand gained significant coverage.
He constantly reiterated his indignation about injustice, exclusion and society’s acceptance of extreme poverty until his death on 22nd January 2007.