Henri Grouès was born on 5 August 1912 in Lyon to an upper middle class family. During his Catholic upbringing, he was instilled with values based on Christianity and solidarity.
The fifth of eight children, Henri Grouès was born on 5 August 1912 in Lyon to an upper middle class Catholic family. During his childhood, he was instilled with values based on Christianity and solidarity. His father, Antoine Grouès, was Director of the Rhône foundries. Driven by the ethos of showing solidarity and sharing with others, he was involved in the work of many organisations, in particular the Hospitaliers-Veilleurs, a charitable organisation in Lyon.
At the age of 12, Henri Grouès found out what his father used to do every Sunday morning. He would shave and cut the hair of around fifty homeless men, and serve them breakfast. He was known as the “pauper’s barber”.
Henri Grouès’s childhood was therefore very much influenced by solidarity and religion.
As a teenager, he got involved with the scouts. This was to have a deep influence on the rest of his life. On his return from a school trip, he discovered his religious vocation in Assisi.
Henri Grouès joined the scouts in 1925. The scouting movement had a huge influence on his formative years and adult life. Abbé Pierre’s interest in the scouting movement was to remain throughout his life.
Henri Grouès studied with the Jesuits in Lyon. In 1927 he went on a school trip to Rome. On the way back, he had a revelation when they stopped off in Asisi. The following year, he read about the life of St Francis. The ascetic lifestyle appealed to him and would guide him in his vocation. From then onwards, Henri Grouès would read and pray a great deal.
However, the boy scout nicknamed the “contemplative beaver” still hesitated between devoting himself to quiet reflection and taking action: he wavered between “heading out into the desert so he could devote all his attention to Jesus” or fighting “as an activist on enemy ground, battling with all his might”.
The Capuchin monk
Henri Grouès entered the order of the Capuchin monks in November 1931, at the age of 19. The seven years he spent at the monastery gave him time for quiet reflection, but the living conditions were very harsh.
In the end, Henri Grouès decided to enter the order of the Capuchins, the most austere branch of the Franciscans. On 21 November 1931, when he was still only 19, he joined the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours monastery in Saint-Etienne.
In 1932, he was named brother Philippe and joined the monastery of Crest in the Drôme, where he spent seven years studying and took his vows on 3 January 1937.
Even though he was to later describe this period as one of “true inner happiness” and invaluable preparation for his later life as an out-of-the-ordinary priest, he found monastery life very challenging.
He suffered from loneliness, low intellectual stimulation and the harsh living conditions. He was also plagued by long-standing health problems.
He was ordained a priest in 1938. After a difficult period, he was given permission in April 1939 to leave the Capuchins and join the diocese of Grenoble.
He was ordained on 24 August 1938. However he found monastery life increasingly hard to cope with and his health prevented him from being able to withstand the harsh living conditions. He was later given permission to leave the Capuchin order in April 1939. The bishop of Grenoble agreed to admit him and ordained him assistant priest of the St Joseph basilica.
When the Second World War broke out in September 1939, he was drafted in as a non-commissioned officer. Hospitalised from January to July, he was demobilised on 31 August 1940. His bishop then made him hospital chaplain in La Mure in the Isère in September 1940, then priest in charge of religious instruction at a public orphanage in Côte-Saint-André in January 1942. He was later made assistant priest of the cathedral of Grenoble from 15 July 1942, a position he held until the end of 1943. Navy chaplain from mid 1944 to the end of 1945, he remained first and foremost a priest up until the end of his life.