Patron Saint of Ragpickers Fights for Homeless : France: Abbe Pierre, an 81-year-old former monk, gets fiendish delight out of confronting status-quo politicians with his ‘holy anger.’
His real name is Henry Groues, but nobody knows it. Street people call the most popular man in France the Ragpickers’ Saint, and he is known best by a wartime code name that stuck: Abbe Pierre.
No ethereal holy man, this bearded old priest with cloak and cane. No everyday mortal, either. Abbe Pierre is a combatant with a mission to wipe out misery, and is a fly in the ointment of those who cherish the status quo.
A former monk, Resistance hero and legislator, founder of the international Emmaus Community for the poor, Abbe Pierre is, above all, the patron saint of France’s estimated half a million homeless people.
At 81, he consistently leads polls as the nation’s best-loved public figure. He has a devilish glint in his deep-set eyes and politicians beware when a “holy anger” is coming on.
“I’m not by temperament a man of anger,” Abbe Pierre said in his room at a rest home for elderly Emmaus workers in this Normandy village. “But when I must denounce something that destroys man, I get mad.
“It is love that engenders this holy anger. They are inseparable.”
A finely chiseled face awash in gentleness but spiced with a piercing regard bespeaks the contradictions of a priest in permanent revolt.
“Indignation” is the word he prefers.
Forty years ago, this indignation welled up when, as Parliament rejected funds for postwar emergency housing, a 3-month-old infant froze to death in a bus its family called home. Days later, a woman died on a Paris boulevard, an eviction order clutched in her frozen hand.
Abbe Pierre transformed his indignation into a radio appeal on behalf of the homeless. In minutes, he moved a nation.
Millions of francs poured in. A hotel, railway station and army trucks were commandeered to collect the 300 tons of donated supplies, which included jewels and fur coats. Charlie Chaplin handed over an envelope containing 2 million francs that, he said, “belonged to the vagabond that I was.”
On the 40th anniversary of that appeal, still indignant, Abbe Pierre renewed his call to action. “My friends, wake up,” he said on the same radio station in early February. “This is war, the war of defense against misery.”
Today, Abbe Pierre’s face peers out from newspapers, magazines and posters, and his frail but sure voice resounds over radio and television as France pays homage to its moral spokesman.
The national daily Liberation described him as “practically a national monument.”
Despite the accolades, the man remains humble. But humility does not prevent him from adroitly using his moral authority to serve his cause.
In September, Abbe Pierre stared down riot police for more than three hours, trying to salvage a home for 20 squatter families who had been evicted. He won a meeting with Prime Minister Edouard Balladur, and concessions.
Two years ago, he refused to accept the coveted Legion of Honor until authorities agreed to establish a High Committee for Housing.
For Abbe Pierre, such gestures are human, not heroic. To understand the plight of the homeless, he explained, “one has only to say, ‘Monsieur, put yourself in their shoes.’ ”
He does not believe in a classless society--"The janitor at Citroen is not jealous of the boss,” he contends--but thinks future generations are “condemned to share” the wealth.
Abbe Pierre, born into a wealthy Lyon family, lives simply in a small room furnished with a bed and a large table.
The table and several crude shelves are such a jumble of papers, books, photographs and other evidence of his long struggle that the walls, painted by other residents in Abbe Pierre’s favorite blue and yellow, are hardly visible.
Downstairs, 35 other residents of the rest home stitch patchwork into blankets for the needy or match the thousands of old buttons collected for resale to raise money for Emmaus, which helps the poor help themselves.
“In modern times, we have never seen a belligerent in a war say, ‘I’m stopping because it costs too much money,’ ” he said, his indignation beginning to show. “Misery is attacking us. We have to put ourselves in a war mode.”
Born Henry Groues, one of eight children of a wealthy banker, he exchanged comfort for a monk’s cell for six years, then became a priest.
He joined the Resistance in World War II, taking the name Abbe Pierre as a cover while he manufactured fake identity papers and helped Jews cross into Switzerland.
His devotion to the “street sleepers” was awakened when he was elected to Parliament after the war. An eclectic deputy for seven years, until 1951, he occasionally begged alms while organizing homeless ragpickers so they could fend for themselves.
With the help of an ex-convict and his own legislative salary, the first Emmaus Community house was born in 1949 in Neuilly-Plaisance, northeast of Paris. Emmaus is now in 37 countries.
“Like everything in my life, nothing is the result of a choice,” Abbe Pierre said modestly. “Life is always more consent than choice . . . consenting to the circumstances at hand.”
Age and infirmities have not persuaded the abbe to slow down. He visited an Emmaus Community in Uruguay in February, answers letters from desperate souls and lobbies politicians regularly.