Founder of Emmaus
In 1949 Abbé Pierre met Georges Legay, who became the first Emmaus companion. The first community was set up in Neuilly-Plaisance.
In 1947, Abbé Pierre rented out a large run-down house in Neuilly-Plaisance, in the eastern suburbs of Paris. True to his ideals, he turned the house into an international youth hostel to accommodate young men and women “whose fathers, not long before, were killing each other and who would discover, with peace newly restored, the extent of the abomination of which Man had been capable”.
In autumn 1949, Abbé Pierre, was called to assist Georges, a former prisoner who had lost all hope and tried to commit suicide. “That is how Emmaus was born. Because, without giving it a second thought, I spontaneously decided to go against the very notion of charity. Instead of saying, ‘you are unhappy, I will give you a home, a job and some money’, the circumstances made me say quite the opposite. I could only tell him the truth, ‘you are dreadfully unhappy, and I have nothing to give you (…). But you, seeing as you want to die, you’ve got nothing to lose. So why don’t you come and help me help others?’ (…) If ever that principle were forgotten, Emmaus would cease to exist. That is what Emmaus is all about. It’s about saying to people who see themselves as a burden, who don't see any point to their lives, ‘I have nothing to give you, except my friendship, and my plea to you to help me so that together we can help save others'”.
That is how Georges became the first companion. The house soon welcomed more like him, which is how the first Emmaus community came into being.
In December 1949, a few days before Christmas, Abbé Pierre put up the first family, who had been evicted from their home. In October 1950, the companions and Abbé Pierre were given permission to build the first set of homes. Abbé Pierre went on to buy a plot of land to build more homes.
Following his defeat at the elections of June 1951, he lost his parliamentary expenses allowance which he used previously to keep the community running. In December, the community’s funds dried up, so he decided do go begging outside theatre entrances. On learning this, a companion explained to him how he used to survive by going through the rubbish and salvaging what he could sell. Abbé Pierre decided to try this idea out and the companion-builders became rag pickers.
With funds running out, Abbé Pierre went ahead and put up tents and built shelters on cheap land without running water. When the authorities demanded to see his building permit, he told them he would put up signs reading "permission to live".
To raise funding for his activities, in 1952 he took part in a game on Radio Luxembourg, “Double or Quits”, winning 256 000 francs which he used to buy a van and some more plots of land.
At night when he would go out to give soup to those sleeping on the streets, it struck Abbé Pierre how urgently they needed help. Angered and deeply distressed by the situation, he made an appeal on 1 February 1954. This brought about a huge surge of solidarity, and a long-awaited political response to the housing crisis.
There were officially 7 million people in France living in substandard housing. The Emmaus companions’ action wasn’t enough. Abbé Pierre dreamed of an extensive programme to build emergency housing.
In December 1953, his friend Léo Hamon tabled and supported an amendment to earmark one billion francs of the building budget to emergency accommodation. However the Parliament adjourned the amendment indefinitely. Abbé Pierre heard of this at the same time as he learned that on the night of 3 January 1954 a baby froze to death in an old bus at the Coquelicots emergency housing site. He then wrote an open, stirring letter to the Housing Minister, who came to the baby’s funeral – “the funeral of national shame” – in Abbé Pierre’s own words.
The Abbé and his ragpickers trawled the streets of Paris giving out blankets, soup and coffee to people living in the streets. At the same time, the Interior Minister was increasing the issue of eviction orders.
While speaking on the radio, Abbé Pierre put forward an idea which became known as the “hundred franc note' campaign”. On 31 January, the first centre to distribute emergency supplies to the homeless was opened on rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Geneviève in Paris, followed by a second one in Courbevoie.
On the morning of 1 February 1954, Abbé Pierre heard that a woman, who had been evicted from her home two days previously, had frozen to death in the street. With a friend, Georges Verpraet, a parliamentary journalist, he wrote the appeal that was firstly broadcast on Paris-Inter, and was then read out by both men on Radio Luxembourg that very midday.
His appeal immediately gave rise to a huge surge of solidarity. Dubbed the “uprising of kindness”, Abbé Pierre preferred to call it an “uprising of intelligence”. Donations for the homeless came flooding in. Thanks to the popularity of the radio, Abbé Pierre became a symbol of the “war against poverty”.
The government followed suit.Three days later, it freed up 10 billion francs for the construction of 10,000 emergency homes, and approved a law forbidding evictions during the winter.
At the end of June 1954, Abbé Pierre brought out Faim & Soif (hunger and thirst), a new kind of newspaper intended to raise the public’s awareness about these issues in France and in the rest of the world.
A figure in the fight against poverty in the world
From 1954 onwards, Abbé Pierre was invited to many different countries to talk about his experiences. He got involved in a range of struggles against poverty.
The world’s media covered the events of 1954. The whole world wanted to find out about the man who roused his country to action.
In March 1956, Mohamed V, King of Morocco, which had become newly independent, turned to Emmaus for advice on clearing its shantytowns. After a visit there, Abbé Pierre said, “You can have all the money in the world, but you can’t achieve anything without people. But with people, you can do anything, and you can make money.” He recommended the implementation of a rural training programme.
Abbé Pierre’s struggle against poverty took him around the world.
From April – May 1955, Abbé Pierre travelled to the United States and Canada on the initiative of philosopher, Jacques Maritain, at the same time as the film, Les Chiffonniers d’Emmaus (The Emmaus Ragpickers) was released. He met President Roosevelt there and the highest religious authorities. The events were covered by the media in several European countries.
In September 1956, he spoke to an audience of 800,000 people in Cologne, Germany. He went to the Netherlands and Portugal in 1957, Sweden, Belgium and Austria in 1958.
In December 1958 – January 1959, he discovered India where an old friendship linked him to the leaders and disciples of Gandhi, the result of shared struggles for world federalism and the struggle against poverty. He travelled a total of 10,000km around the country, meeting Mother Teresa in Calcutta as well as Nehru along the way.
He stopped off in Lebanon where his conferences received a great deal of attention.
Between July – August 1959, he visited most of the countries in South America and a few newly-formed Emmaus organisations. He forged a strong friendship with dom Hélder Câmara, auxiliary bishop of Rio de Janeiro, who shared his struggle for society’s most disadvantaged members and championed their cause before the Latino-American Catholic authorities and the Vatican.
In 1959, he was invited to Sweden, where the authorities were concerned about a significant increase in the numbers of university students committing suicide. Abbé Pierre urged them to sign up to become international volunteers in India and Latin America. In the decades that followed, he would repeat the same message to young people around the world.
Whilst Emmaus communities were increasingly being set up in France, Abbé Pierre continued with his meetings and conferences around the world – in Europe (including Austria, Finland, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden), in Africa (Benin, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Senegal, Togo), South America (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela) and North America (Canada and the United States), Asia (South Korea and Japan), Lebanon and many other countries.
The founder of Emmaus International
During his travels, he shared his experiences of Emmaus with others, leading to the creation of Emmaus organisations in many countries in Europe, Latin America and Asia. In 1963, after surviving a shipwreck, he realised how urgent it was to set up an organisation to structure all the Emmaus organisations around the globe.
Abbé Pierre travelled the world, sharing his ideas and experiences of Emmaus. As a result, many Emmaus organisations sprang up in his wake.
He attended all of Emmaus International’s main events and meetings right up until the end of his life – such as the world assemblies and board meetings. He also visited the Emmaus organisations around the world.