"My friends, come help... A woman froze to death tonight at 3:00 AM, on the pavement of Sebastopol Boulevard, clutching the eviction notice which the day before had made her homeless... Each night, more than two thousand endure the cold, without food, without bread, more than one almost naked. To face this horror, emergency lodgings are not enough.
Grouès was born on 5 August 1912 in Lyon, France to a wealthy Catholic family of silk traders, the fifth of eight children. He spent his childhood in Irigny, near Lyon. He was twelve when he met François Chabbey and went for the first time with his father to an Order circle, the brotherhood of the "Hospitaliers veilleurs" in which the mainly middle-class members would serve the poor by providing barber services.
Grouès became a member of the Scouts de France in which he was nicknamed "Meditative Beaver" (Castor méditatif). In 1928, aged 16, he made the decision to join a monastic order, but he had to wait until he was seventeen and a half to fulfill this ambition. In 1931 Grouès entered the Capuchin Order, the principal offshoot of the Franciscans, renouncing his inheritances and offering all his possessions to charities.
Known as frère Philippe (Brother Philippe), he entered the monastery of Crest in 1932, where he lived seven years. He had to leave in 1939 after developing severe lung infections, which made the strict and hard monastic life difficult to cope with. He became chaplain in the hospital of La Mure (Isère), and then of an orphanage in the Côte-Saint-André (also in the Isère department). After being ordained a Roman Catholic priest on 24 August 1938, he became curate of Grenoble's cathedral in April 1939, only a few months before the invasion of Poland.
At the end of the war, he was awarded the Croix de guerre 1939-1945 with bronze palms and the Médaille de la Résistance. Like other members of the Resistance, his experience would mark him for life, teaching him the necessity of engaging himself to protect fundamental human rights through legal means and, if need be, through a sort of civil disobedience doctrine.
His pseudonym dates from his work with the French Resistance during the Second World War, when he operated under several different names. Based in Grenoble, an important center of the Resistance, he helped Jews and politically persecuted escape to Switzerland. In 1942, he assisted Jacques de Gaulle (the brother of Charles de Gaulle) and his wife escape to Switzerland.
He participated in establishing a section of the maquis where he officially became one of the local Leaders in the Vercors Plateau and in the Chartreuse Mountains. He helped people to avoid being taken into the Service du travail obligatoire (STO), the Nazi forced-labour program agreed upon with Pierre Laval, by creating in Grenoble the first refugee for resistants to the STO; he founded the clandestine newspaper L'Union patriotique indépendante. For a time, in 1943, he was given shelter by Lucie Coutaz, a Resistance member who later became his secretary and was his assistant in his charity work until her death in 1982.
He was arrested twice, once in 1944 by the Nazi police in the city of Cambo-les-Bains in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, but was quickly released and travelled to Spain then Gibraltar before joining the Free French Forces of General de Gaulle in Algeria. In the Free North Africa, he became a chaplain in the French Navy on the battleship Jean Bart in Casablanca. He had become an important character and symbol of the French Resistance.
When the war was over, following de Gaulle's entourage's advice and the approbation of the archbishop of Paris, Abbé Pierre was elected deputy for Meurthe-et-Moselle department in both National Constituent Assemblies in 1945–1946 as an independent close to the Popular Republican Movement (MRP), mainly consisting of Christian democratic members of the Resistance. In 1946, he was re-elected as a member of the National Assembly, but this time as a member of the MRP. Abbé Pierre became vice-president of the Confédération mondiale in 1947, a universal federalist movement.
Emmaus (Emmaüs in French) was started in 1949. Its name is a reference to a village in Israel appearing in the Gospel of Luke, where two disciples extended hospitality to Jesus just after his resurrection without recognizing him. In that way, Emmaus's mission is to help poor and homeless people. It is a secular organization. In 1950 the first community of Emmaus companions was created in Neuilly-Plaisance close to Paris in France. The Emmaus community raises funds for the construction of housing by selling used goods. "Emmaus, it's a little like the wheelbarrow, the shovels and the pickaxes coming before the banners. A sort of social fuel derived from salvaging defeating men."
After a bloody accident resulting in the death of a blue-collar worker, Édouard Mazé, in Brest in 1950, Abbé Pierre decided to put an end to his MRP affiliation on 28 April 1950, writing a letter titled "Pourquoi je quitte le MRP" ("Why I quit the MRP"), where he denounced the political and social attitude of the MRP party. He then joined the Christian socialist movement named Ligue de la jeune République, created in 1912 by Marc Sangnier, but decided to finally end his political career. In 1951, before the end of his mandate, he returned to his first vocation: to help homeless people. With the small indemnities he received as a deputy, he invested in a run-down house near Paris in the wealthy Neuilly-Plaisance neighbourhood. Astounding his neighbours, the priest began to repair the roof and the whole house, and finally made of it the first Emmaüs base (because, according to him, it was simply too big for one person). Although the Abbé then put a definitive end to his involvement in representative politics, preferring to invest his energies in the Emmaus charity movement, he never completely abandoned the political field, taking strong stances on many and various subjects.
There were initial difficulties raising funds, so in 1952, Abbé Pierre decided to be a contestant on the Radio Luxembourg game show Quitte ou double (Double or Nothing) for the prize money; he ended up winning 256,000 francs.
The next morning, the press wrote of an "uprising of kindness" (insurrection de la bonté) and the now-famous call for help ended up raising 500 million francs in donations (Charlie Chaplin gave 2 million). This enormous amount was totally unexpected; telephone operators and the postal Service were overwhelmed, and owing to the volume of donations, several weeks were needed just to sort them, distribute them, and find a place to stock them throughout the country. Moreover, this call attracted volunteers from all over the country to help them, including wealthy bourgeoises who were emotionally shaken by the Abbé's call: first to do the redistribution, but then to duplicate the effort all around France. Quite quickly, Abbé Pierre had to organise his movement by creating the Emmaus communities on 23 March 1954.
In an Emmaus community, volunteers help homeless people by giving them accommodation, and somewhere to eat and work. A number of Emmaus volunteers are also formerly homeless people themselves, from all age groups, religious or ethnic origins, and social backgrounds. The Abbé Pierre strived to show desperate people that they too could help others, and thus that the weak could still help even weaker people. A book was written by Boris Simon which described the misery of poor ragpicker communities, called "Abbé Pierre and the ragpickers of Emmaus" which helped spread knowledge about the Emmaus community. In 1955 Abbé Pierre gives President Eisenhower an English translation of the book, in the oval office.
Thus, when the decolonization movement was slowly beginning to emerge in the whole world, he attempted in 1956 to convince Tunisian leader Habib Bourguiba to obtain independence without using violence. Present in various international conferences at the end of the 1950s, he met Colombian priest Camilo Torres (1929–1966), a predecessor of Liberation theology, who asked for his advice on the Colombian Church's criticism of "workers' Priests." He was also received by US President Eisenhower and Mohammed V of Morocco in 1955 and 1956. In 1962 he resided for several months in Charles de Foucauld's retreat in Béni-Abbés (Algeria).
The Emmaus communities quickly spread worldwide. The Abbé traveled to Beyrouth (Beirut, Lebanon) in 1959, to assist in the creation of the first multiconfessional Emmaus group there; it was founded by a Sunni (Muslim), a Melkite (Catholic) archbishop and a Maronite (Christian) Writer.
The Abbé was then called to India in 1971 by Jayaprakash Narayan to represent, along with the Ligue des droits de l'homme (Human Rights League) France in the issues of refugees. Indira Gandhi then invited him to deal with the question of Bengali refugees, and the Abbé founded Emmaus communities in Bangladesh.
The same year, he organized the operation "Charity Christmas", which, relayed by France Soir, brought 6 millions Francs and 200 tons of products. The actor Coluche, who had organized the charitable Restos du Cœur, offered him 150 millions French cents received by his organisation. Coluche's huge success with the Restos du Cœur, caused by his popularity (Coluche had even tried to present himself to the 1981 presidential election before withdrawing), convinced the Abbé again of the necessity and value of such charitable struggles and the usefulness of the media in such endeavours.
In 1983, he spoke with Italian President Sandro Pertini to plead the cause of Vanni Mulinaris, imprisoned on charge of assistance to the Red Brigades (BR), and even observed eight days of hunger strike from 26 May to 3 June 1984 in the Cathedral of Turin to protest against detention conditions of "Brigadists" in Italian prisons and the imprisonment without trial of Vanni Mulinaris, who was recognized innocent sometimes afterwards. Italian magistrate Carlo Mastelloni recalled in the Corriere della Sera in 2007 that a niece of the Abbé was a secretary at Hyperion language school in Paris, directed by Vanni Mulinaris, and married to one of the Italians refugees then wanted by the Italian justice. According to the Corriere della Sera, it would even have been him who convinced then President François Mitterrand to grant protection from extradition to left-wing Italian Activists who took refuge in France and had broken with their past.
In 1988 Abbé Pierre met representatives of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to discuss the difficult financial, monetary and human issues brought by the huge Third World debt (starting in 1982, Mexico had announced it could not pay the Service of its debt, triggering the 1980s Latin American debt crisis). In the 1990s, the Abbé criticized the apartheid regime in South Africa. In 1995, after a three-year-long siege of Sarajevo, he went there to exhort nations of the world to put an end to the violence, and requested French military operation against the Serb positions in Bosnia.
During the Gulf War (1990–91), the Abbé directly addressed himself to US President George H. W. Bush and Iraq President Saddam Hussein. He asked French President François Mitterrand to engage himself in matters concerning refugees, in particular by the creation of a stronger organisation than the current UN High Commissioner for Refugees (HCR). He encountered this year the Dalai Lama during inter-religious peace encounters. A staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause, he has attracted attention with some of his statements on the Israeli-Palestine conflict
Following this 1996 controversial support to a personal acquaintance, the Abbé was shunned for a small period by the media, although the Abbé remained a popular figure. In 2004, he went to Algeria after the rebuilding of lodgings by the Fondation Abbé Pierre, following the 2003 earthquake which destroyed parts of the country.
In 1998, he has been made Grand Officer of the National Order of Quebec while in 2004, he was awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor by Jacques Chirac. He also received the Balzan Prize for Humanity, Peace and Brotherhood among Peoples in 1991 "For having fought, throughout his life, for the defence of human rights, democracy and peace. For having entirely dedicated himself to helping to relieve spiritual and physical suffering. For having inspired – regardless of nationality, race or religion – universal solidarity with the Emmaus Communities."
Abbé Pierre had the distinction of having been voted France's most popular person for many years, though in 2003 he was surpassed by Zinedine Zidane, moving into second place. In 2005 Abbé Pierre came third in a television poll to choose Le Plus Grand Français (The Greatest Frenchman).
His support for the ordination of women, and married clergy put him at odds with Christian tradition, Church Leaders and a substantial portion of French Catholics that follow the traditional teaching of the Church. The same stances which according to British state media made him popular among the declining number of left wing Catholics in France. In his book Mon Dieu... pourquoi? (God... Why?, 2005), co-written with Frédéric Lenoir, he admitted to breaking his solemn promise of celibacy by having had Casual sex with women. Despite very strong grassroots opposition to adoption by same sex couples Abbé Pierre dismissed people's concerns that it deprives children of a mother or father and turns them into objects. The Abbé also opposed the traditional Catholic policy on contraceptives.
After homage by dignitaries, several hundred ordinary Parisians (among them professor Albert Jacquard, who struggled with the Abbé for the cause of homelessness) went to the Val-de-Grâce chapel to see Abbé Pierre's corpse. His funeral on 26 January 2007 at the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris was attended by numerous distinguished people: President Jacques Chirac, former President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, many French Ministers, and of course the Companions of Emmaus, who were placed at the front of the congregation in the cathedral, according to Abbé Pierre's last wishes. He was buried in a cemetery in Esteville, a small village in Seine-Maritime where he used to live. Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, archbishop of Lyon, evoked a possible beatification, but it seems unlikely in the near Future.