When he almost lost his life in 1963 in a shipwreck in Uruguay, Abbé Pierre decided to structure the movement, creating a temporary international board and inviting all the Emmaus groups to a meeting held in Bern in 1969. He presented them with a draft Manifesto for their review, aimed at forming a common basis for all groups worldwide. The creation of Emmaus International had begun.
In 1963, Abbé Pierre went on a tour of the Emmaus communities in Latin America. He was travelling aboard the Ciudad de Asunción on the night of 11 July when it sank on the Rio de la Plata estuary (between Argentina and Uruguay). Abbé Pierre survived, although the world’s press initially announced that he had perished. He later said:
” This near-death experience was, without a doubt, just as important a moment in my personal life as joining the capuchin order and begging in the streets of Paris at night, and then what I called Abraham’s sacrifice at the clinic. But it was also a major turning point for the Emmaus movement´s history, and future. “Abbé Pierre
“Abbé Pierre’s shipwreck” highlighted the fact that he, and Lucie Coutaz, his secretary, were the only people who knew all the Emmaus groups around the world. He became convinced of the need to bring together all the world´s groups and made numerous visits between 1963 and 1969 to persuade them to set up Emmaus International and discuss the content of the founding document, the future Universal Manifesto.
On 10 May 1967, Abbé Pierre sent a letter “to all the communities, volunteer teams and groups of friends of Emmaus throughout the world”, in which he informed them that Jean Hossenlopp had just joined the International Liaison Secretariat of Emmaus organisations and volunteer aid associations (until then made up of Abbé Pierre and Lucie Coutaz) in order to start drawing up a founding text and a worldwide directory of Emmaus initiatives. He also announce the provision of a house in Esteville (near Rouen, France) as a “meeting centre of the International Secretariat: this Emmaus ‘stopover’ is available to all. Let this home belong to all of you.”
In December 1968, following 18 months of visits, Abbé Pierre announced that the movement´s first international assembly would be held and would be tasked with “drawing up a universal manifesto”. He also announced the composition of the temporary board, tasked with laying the foundations of an international organisation. This board was formed of five experienced members of the movement: José Aravena (Chile), Marcel Farine (Switzerland), Robert Laporte (Canada), Robert Vallade (Japan) and Jean Wilken (the Netherlands).
The action plan put forward by the temporary board suggested holding the first Emmaus International General Assembly in Bern, at the Swiss Federal Parliament, on 24 and 25 May 1969. Chaired by Marcel Farine, 70 Emmaus groups from 20 nations met for the first time. Together, they adopted the Universal Manifesto as the movement’s founding text – which it still is today. The second important decision made by this assembly was to confirm a temporary committee to set up an Emmaus International Secretariat. Like the future permanent secretariat, the temporary committee was tasked with “strengthening the ties between the different groups, coordinating their efforts and documenting all the issues arising in order to find an effective solution for those who are suffering the most”. They were both based in Montreal, Canada.
This assembly convened a new general assembly in 1971 to set up Emmaus International as an association and adopt its statutes.
This second general assembly was the ‘founding’ assembly of Emmaus International. Of the 120 organisations present, 95 adopted the statutes of “Emmaus International, an international, non-governmental, non-profit association”. This assembly determined geographical regions of groups, elected the members of the administrative board representing these regions and set up a permanent international secretariat. The executive committee was formed of three elected members: Marcel Farine – Chair (Switzerland), José Balista – Vice-Chair (Argentina), Gaëtan Raymond – Secretary General (Canada), and Abbé Pierre, founder and member by right.