No matter the region or country, Emmaus groups are almost always the result of an initiative by local people to meet local needs by harnessing local resources and knowledge. It is never a project imposed from the outside.
In November 1949, Abbé Pierre founded the first Emmaus community in Neuilly-Plaisance, in the suburbs of Paris, France. Almost simultaneously, similar initiatives were being set up in several countries (Belgium, Argentina, Japan), who were also experiencing a significant increase in extreme poverty, particularly following the devastation of the Second World War. They were unaware of the existence of Abbé Pierre and Emmaus in France until the appeal of 1 February 1954 became popular worldwide. The shared values guiding the Emmaus experience and its approach resonated with them and they subsequently contacted Abbé Pierre.
Find out more here about the history and origin of the four regions of the Emmaus movement.
The history of Emmaus on the African continent began in Rwanda in 1961 when the Belgian priest, Joseph Fraipont, a former Emmaus volunteer in France, created the ‘Home of Our Lady of the Poor’ on Gatagarale hill. It was an innovative centre for the care, re-education and professional training of physically handicapped children, who were hidden away by their families at the time. He was closely linked to Abbé Pierre and he infused it with the Emmaus spirit. The organisation was one of the founding members of Emmaus International in 1971.
In the 1990s, Emmaus in Africa began to flourish, thanks to Albert Tévoédjrè, in Benin, the Deputy Director of the International Labour Office, who published “Poverty, the wealth of peoples” in 1978. This book earned him an invitation to speak at the Emmaus World Assembly in Namur in 1984, where he discovered the fellowship and perceived its relevance to African societies. In 1988, he met Véronique Gnanih in Geneva, a Beninese woman who was completing a university course on environmental issues. She was preparing for her return to Benin and wanted to set up an initiative to treat household waste. He told her about Emmaus and together they set up the first Emmaus group in Benin, which became the second group in Africa.
During the same period, the Emmaus International Executive Committee made its desire clear to create Emmaus groups that were both authentically African and treated on an equal footing with the other members of the movement worldwide. The idea arose of organising a meeting between different local organisations already in partnerships with European Emmaus groups. It took place at the end of 1989 with the organisation of the first inter-African meeting in Porto Novo, Benin. This was followed by two other meetings in Burkina Faso and Cameroon in 1991 and 1993, which led to some organisations joining Emmaus International and others being created.
In 2002, the movement realised the need to expand its membership in Africa, and new local organisations became members in the following years. The composition of the Africa region is still largely the same today.
Latin America is the oldest and principal location of Emmaus groups outside of Europe.
In Uruguay and Argentina, the organisations that joined Emmaus existed prior to Abbé Pierre’s 1954 appeal and the publication in Spanish of ‘Abbé Pierre and the ragpickers of Emmaus’ in 1956. They were created and run by priests with an innovative spirit, often influenced by what would become liberation theology. Like Abbé Pierre, they were concerned about the fate of the poorest people at a time when the rural exodus and shanty towns were exploding, and their activities were focused primarily on housing.
In 1950, in Uruguay, the Jesuit priest, Atanasio Sierra, was raising public awareness of the problem of slums. In 1954, he founded the Emmaus organisation with students, working in the slums of Montevideo.
As early as 1952 in Argentina, the Jesuit priest and sociologist, José Balista, enlisted the help of his students and, with their support and help from Argentine and Canadian volunteers, he built small houses for poor families. The organisation was set up at the end of 1955 with the Emmaus name. José Balista met Abbé Pierre who was convalescing in Switzerland in 1958 and invited him to Argentina.
From June to September 1959, Abbé Pierre made his first tour of Latin America, visiting Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela.
He discovered that in Peru rag-picking activities had been initiated a few months earlier by the French priest, Gérard Protain, working with Peruvians living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. He was a member of the Paris Mission, inspired by working-class priests.
In Brazil, he met Dom Hélder Câmara, auxiliary bishop of Rio, architect of a Church that serves the poor and future great defender of human rights; the two men had known each other for several years. In 1963, Dom Hélder asked Abbé Pierre for the help of a volunteer to create an Emmaus community in Brazil. Although this community is no longer a member of Emmaus International, several Emmaus organisations were set up in Brazil during the 1990s.
In Chile, a group of young students, called “Las Urracas” (the magpies) was set up at the end of 1957. They were engaged in cultural work and people turned to them for help after 3,000 families squatted on land in La Victoria, a suburb of Santiago. They met Abbé Pierre during his presentation at the University of Santiago in 1959, and two of them went to France to discover the life and work of the communities. On their return, they set up the first Emmaus rag picking community in Chile in 1961.
During General Pinochet’s dictatorship, Emmaus Chile supported popular soup kitchens for disadvantaged children. To obtain supplies, a delegation travelled to the Bolivian altiplano in 1976 to buy quinoa from peasant communities. There they met Fernando Sandalio, an activist in the cooperative movement. The idea was born in Bolivia and Emmaus Oruro was created in 1978.
In the same year, the Emmaus fishermen’s community was created in Colombia thanks to the initiative of an Italian clergyman, Flavio Veronesi. After participating in setting up Emmaus in Bilbao, Spain, he arrived in Buenaventura at the end of the 1970s and decided to set up an Emmaus group there with an original activity: fishing. This was the traditional activity of the Black populations on the Pacific coast.
But the Emmaus story also began very early in Canada. In 1955, Abbé Pierre gave a series of lectures in Quebec and questioned the clergy about their rather lavish lifestyle. Despite opposition from some of the clergy, Emmaus’ work began there with the support of the Montreal archdiocese. The Montreal Emmaus community hosted the constitutive assembly of Emmaus International in 1971. The head office of the Emmaus International Secretariat was based there until the end of 1976, when it was transferred to Charenton-le-Pont in France.
In 1966, Father David Kirk (a former comrade of Martin Luther King) and a few friends founded Emmaus House in New York (USA), an ecumenical community oriented towards non-violence, the rejection of the Vietnam War and working with the poor Black and Puerto Rican populations. A few years later, Emmaus Harlem (Emmaus House) heard about Abbé Pierre and the Emmaus movement that had the same name as their own, and got in touch.
History shows us that Emmaus was established in Asia in two different ways: through local initiatives led by citizens or missionary priests and as a result of visits made by Abbé Pierre. In Japan, Indonesia and South Korea, the organisations were set up as local initiatives and they later joined the movement.
The first Emmaus group in Asia was set up in 1950 in Tokyo, Japan. It was a purely Japanese initiative: Mr Ozawa, ruined by the Second World War, Mr Matsui and Satoko Kitahara, a young woman from a wealthy background, created Arino-Kai (the city of ants) with ragpickers who suffered not only poverty but also dishonour. In 1955, on the advice of his superiors, the French missionary Robert Vallade came to share their lives and then created the Gyoko-Kai (Morning Light) group in Kobe. In 1956, he asked for help from the Emmaus community in Neuilly-Plaisance, which sent money “not to hand out soup, but to work”. Under the guidance of Father Vallade, a number of Emmaus communities developed in Japan, helped at the start by French, Italian and Danish Emmaus communities.
In Indonesia, Father Antoine Van Dam, a Dutch missionary, helped the poorest people in Medan, on the island of Sumatra. In 1961, he asked the travelling Emmaus community to help purchase a mobile clinic. He then met Abbé Pierre and developed a social centre, financed in part by collecting paper and bottles from ships in port.
In South Korea, a Korean priest from the Young Catholic Workers discovered Emmaus through a Japanese newspaper. In 1957, he occupied a piece of land and developed the first community for children and adolescents orphaned by war. It was the host community for the world’s youngest ragpickers.
In India and Lebanon, Emmaus was launched following one of Abbé Pierre’s talks in these countries.
Abbé Pierre went to India for the first time at the end of December 1958 and in January 1959, as a guest speaker at the congress of the National Federation of Indian Catholic Universities. He met Nehru who conveyed a message of support to the Emmaus volunteers, young foreigners working in the slums and rural areas. Shortly afterwards, the Swallows of Sweden (Emmaus members) set up the Swallows in India organisation.
On his way to India, Abbé Pierre stopped over in Lebanon and held several conferences. On the return journey a few weeks later, he was surprised to learn that a Maronite Christian, a Shiite Muslim and a Druze had founded an Emmaus community and called it the Oasis of Hope; this community earned its living by collecting waste and making fuel by hand.
In Bangladesh, Emmaus’ work began as part of an emergency relief effort for the victims of a civilian massacre during the civil war in East Pakistan in 1971. The Swallows of Sweden went there and asked for financial help from Emmaus International, which had been created a few months earlier. After the emergency, weaving and dyeing workshops were set up to provide a livelihood for the widows of the victims.
In 1949, Abbé Pierre and Lucie Coutaz welcomed Georges Legay to Neuilly Plaisance, where he became the first Emmaus companion. In the same year in Belgium, individuals rallied to alleviate post-war destitution. The 1954 appeal gave a tremendous boost to the development of Emmaus in France and Europe as a whole. After France and Belgium, the Netherlands was the third country where an Emmaus organisation was created. It was set up in 1956 by a couple of young volunteers who had spent a few months in the Neuilly-Plaisance community.
At that time, it was mainly Abbé Pierre’s speeches that led to the creation of Emmaus communities and groups.
In Switzerland, Marcel Farine and his wife met Abbé Pierre in 1956 at the end of his conference in Bern and organised, two days later, their first emergency operation. In 1959, his conference in Lund, Sweden, led to the creation of the Swallows Association, which sent young volunteers to India to help people in slums and rural areas. At the time, the country was facing a major crisis in student suicides, and young people were looking for meaning in their lives and for a purpose. Abbé Pierre invited them to act by volunteering to help those suffering in developing countries. “Swallow” is significant as, like the birds, these young people returned to their countries to tell their stories and share their experiences. The Swedish initiative was immediately supported by Finland, which formed a Swallows association in 1964, and replicated in Norway in 1960 and Denmark in 1963.
The creation of groups from the outset was very often a story of encounters, particularly the initiatives involving young volunteers.
The first group in Germany was founded in 1959 in Cologne following several meetings with Belgian Emmaus groups. In 1962, after several months in French communities, a young volunteer created the first community in Italy in Verona. Young Spaniards who took part in the international Emmaus work camp organised by the French in Bilbao in 1970 were instrumental in the development of Emmaus in Spain. Marked by his time as a volunteer in Neuilly-Plaisance in the 1960s, an English businessman launched the first community in Cambridge, UK in 1992. In Portugal, the numerous conferences given by a former community leader in France led to the start of an Emmaus initiative in 1983.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the ensuing political changes made it possible to open up Emmaus to organisations in Eastern Europe. In Estonia, Emmaus Helsinki’s contacts and material aid to Christians involved in social action led to the creation of an Emmaus group in Tallinn in 1990, as soon as political change occurred, but it did not join the Emmaus movement.
From the start of the civil war in Yugoslavia in 1992, Emmaus communities in France and Italy took part in humanitarian convoys, which led to the creation of an Emmaus group in Bosnia-Herzegovina after the war. In Romania, the French organisation ‘Coup de Main’ encouraged the creation of an Emmaus initiative in 1995. In Poland, an Emmaus community for the intellectually disabled was created in 1996 following contact with Emmaus International and Emmaus Cologne.
Since then, the Europe region has continued to grow: the new groups joining the region come mainly from Eastern Europe (Albania, Latvia, Croatia and Georgia) and France and take the form of various legal structures.