By Caroline de Sury
PARIS (OSV News) — On Feb. 1, 1954, a Catholic priest was shocked to learn a woman had frozen to death on the streets of Paris with an eviction notice in her hand.
Seventy years later he was remembered for his heartfelt appeal that moved the country and changed the way the church helped the homeless forever.
Born Henri Grouès in 1912, he always wanted to become a priest and was ordained as a Capuchin Franciscan in 1938. But when World War II broke out, he joined the French Resistance, helping Jews escape the horrors of Nazi occupation in Europe. That’s most likely when he earned his new name: Abbé Pierre.
He founded his Emaus ministry for the poor and homeless in 1949, but it was the winter of 1954 that made his name known to every French citizen.
In the aftermath of war, France faced an immense housing crisis, and in 1954, the winter was particularly cold. That year, on Feb. 1, Abbé Pierre was shocked to learn of the death of an elderly woman on a Paris street, found in rags during the night with the eviction notice in her hand.
One month earlier, the friar witnessed the death of a baby in similar circumstances. Abbé Pierre rushed to the offices of Luxembourg radio in Paris and got a few minutes of air time.
“Each of us can come to the aid of the homeless,” he urged. “By tonight, and tomorrow at the latest, we need: 5,000 blankets, 300 large American tents, 200 catalytic stoves,” he said, referring to the tents used by American soldiers in World War II. “Drop them off quickly at the Rochester Hotel, 92, rue de la Boétie. … Thanks to you, no adult, no child will lie tonight on the asphalt or quays of Paris.”
The friar immediately set up two emergency centers, but they were “immediately overflowing,” he said, adding that “every night, there are more than 2,000” people in need “huddled under the frost, without roof, without bread, more than one almost naked. Faced with so much horror, emergency cities are no longer even urgent enough!”
“This very evening, in every city in France, in every district of Paris,” he continued, “signs must be hung under a light in the night, at the door of places where there are blankets, straw, soup, and where under this title ‘fraternal help center,’ we read these simple words: ‘You who suffer, whoever you are, come in, sleep, eat, regain hope, here we love you.'”
The response to Abbé Pierre’s appeal was immense and immediate: Tons of clothing and blankets were donated in a few hours. In the following weeks and months, the momentum generated by his appeal raised 500 million francs — around $86 million in today’s terms. It included a check for 2 million francs donated by Charlie Chaplin in October 1954.
“I’m not giving them to you,” he was reported to have said to Abbé Pierre. “I’m giving them back. They belong to the vagabond that I was and that I embodied,” he said referring to his early silent cinema roles of a mustache-and-round-hat vagabond.
Bishop Pascal Delannoy, who is president of the Solidarity Council of the French bishops’ conference issued a statement Feb. 1 about Abbé Pierre’s commitment.
“Poverty is not inevitable, it can be fought,” he said, referring to the works of the famous priest, who died in 2007. Bishop Delannoy heads the Diocese of Saint-Denis, north of Paris, where poverty is rife, linked in particular to the arrival of immigrants in precarious situations.
With the money he collected, Abbé Pierre built emergency housing and founded a new Emmaus Association, working in the field of accommodation for the needy. In 1956, his work led to the adoption of a law prohibiting the eviction of tenants during the winter. It is still in force today.
“The sole aim of this appeal was to solicit everyone’s generosity so that no one would freeze to death for lack of shelter,” Bishop Delannoy said in his statement. But it did much more, the bishop stressed. “By putting the poorest of the poor at the heart of everyone’s concerns, it provoked what the press of the time relayed under the title of the ‘insurrection of kindness.'”
Bishop Delannoy pointed out that today, 15% of the French population lives below the poverty line, which is about 10 million people. On Feb. 1, the Abbé Pierre Foundation published a 2024 report on housing difficulties in France. The document states that 4 million people “suffer from inadequate housing” today, which it describes as a “social bomb”.
The bishop of Saint-Denis called the situation of so many single-parent families especially alarming, but also pointed out that a number of French people commit themselves every day to serving the poorest of the poor.
“Today, may we once again hear the words of Abbé Pierre, and respond to his call,” Bishop Delannoy concluded. “In the face of their brothers dying of misery, only one opinion should exist between people: the will to make it impossible for this to continue.”
Caroline de Sury writes for OSV News from Paris.