France mourns radical priest, Abbe Pierre

22nd January 2007, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Jan 22, 2007 (AFP) - Abbe Pierre, a priest who became the conscience of the French nation during more than half a century of campaigns for the homeless, died Monday at the age of 94.

PARIS, Jan 22, 2007 (AFP) - Abbe Pierre, a priest who became the conscience of the French nation during more than half a century of campaigns for the homeless, died Monday at the age of 94.

The resistance fighter-turned-ecclesiastic regularly topped French popularity polls, beating sporting icons, pop stars and politicians.

President Jacques Chirac led tributes to the priest who had been in failing health in recent years and died in a Paris hospital early Monday of a lung infection.

Chirac expressed his "immense respect" for Abbe Pierre and said that "all of France is deeply touched. It has lost an immense figure, a conscience, an incarnation of goodness."

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin praised Abbe Pierre as a man of "great heart and commitment" who had shone a compassionate spotlight on poverty and homelessness.

"All the people of France will miss him," Villepin said.

The priest set up his Companions of Emmaus movement for the homeless after World War II during which he had been a resistance fighter and helped French Jews escape to Switzerland.

He was a Christian Democrat member of parliament from 1945 to 1951 but his campaigning first achieved national attention with a radio broadcast made on a bitterly cold winter night in 1954.

"My friends -- help! A woman froze to death at three o'clock this morning," he said in the broadcast in Paris.

Almost 40 years later, Abbe Pierre, in his trademark cassock and black beret, by then bent and frail, launched an almost identical appeal, this time directed at France's political leaders.

"Elected officials: it's time to act so that everyone has a lodging... France must build, it has the resources," he said in August 2003.

At the time a new wave of homelessness was becoming apparent in France. The phenonemon has continued to grow despite the efforts of groups such as Emmaus which now works in more than 50 countries and has 10,000 apartments and homes in the Paris region alone.

The president of the French Muslim Council, Dalil Boubakeur, spoke of a profound sense of loss at the news of Abbe Pierre's death.

"We would like to express our deepest respect and total admiration for the life of this man of God which was devoted to defending the powerless and the rights of the poorest to live with dignity," Boubakeur said.

In the Vatican, French cardinal Roger Ethchegaray said Abbe Pierre's death "affects all of humanity for a simple reason: he never strayed from the cause, declaring war on poverty and putting first those who suffered the most."

Abbe Pierre was born Henri Groues into a large and well-off family in the southeastern city of Lyon, on August 5, 1912. After schooling under Jesuit monks, he entered the Capuchins, one of the humblest Catholic orders and was ordained a priest in 1938.

After the war Pierre ran into an ex-convict who had similar ideas, and together they renovated an old building in the Paris suburbs to provide shelter for the homeless.

In 1949 the first Emmaus community was born, named after a village in the Christian holy land where Jesus Christ was said to have appeared to his disciples after his crucifixion.

The "companions of Emmaus", as they call themselves, live mainly by recycling and reselling what other people have thrown out.

Pierre was awarded the French legion of honour in 1992.

In 1996 he ran into controversy over statements he made in favour of his close friend Roger Garaudy, a Communist writer who had converted from Catholicism to Islam and who had called into question the reality of the World War II Holocaust. The row nevertheless failed to dint the priest's enduring popularity.

In his later years Abbe Pierre lived in the Paris suburbs.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French News

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