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Abbe Pierre, 94; helped homeless and served as France's conscience

January 23, 2007|From the Associated Press

PARIS — Abbe Pierre, a French priest praised as a legend for devoting his life to helping the homeless and using prayer and provocation to tackle misery, died Monday, his foundation said. He was 94.

One of France's most beloved public figures, Abbe Pierre died at Val de Grace military hospital in Paris, where he had been admitted with a lung infection Jan. 14, his foundation said.

The founder of the international Emmaus Community for the poor, Abbe Pierre had served as France's conscience since the 1950s, when he persuaded parliament to pass a law -- still on the books -- forbidding landlords to evict tenants during winter.

"We have lost a great figure, a conscience, an incarnation of goodness," President Jacques Chirac said.

A former monk, Resistance fighter and parliamentarian, Abbe Pierre long remained spry and determined despite old age. For years, he topped polls as France's most beloved public figure.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday January 26, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Abbe Pierre: The obituary of Abbe Pierre in Tuesday's California section said the French priest was involved in a controversy over the book "Founding Myths of Israeli Politics" in 1966. The year was 1996.

The Roman Catholic priest freely admitted to using provocation as a tactical weapon in his war on misery.

"I'm not by temperament a man of anger," Abbe Pierre said in a 1994 interview with the Associated Press. "But when I must denounce something that destroys man, I get mad."

In the winter of 1954, an indignant Abbe Pierre issued a radio appeal on behalf of the homeless after a 3-month-old infant froze to death in a bus that served as the family's home, and after a woman died on a Paris boulevard with an eviction order clutched in her frozen hand. Lawmakers had just rejected funds for postwar emergency housing.

Millions of francs poured in after his appeal. A hotel, train station and army trucks were commandeered to collect tons of donated supplies that included jewels and fur coats.

In 1966, scandal swirled when Abbe Pierre came out in defense of a book that questioned the number of Jews killed by Nazis in World War II and accused Israel of exploiting the Holocaust for political ends.

His position astounded much of France, all the more so because Abbe Pierre had helped Jews during World War II.

He later retracted his support for the book, "Founding Myths of Israeli Politics" by revisionist historian Roger Garaudy, a friend of the priest.

At one point, Abbe Pierre said he in no way intended "to question the horrible reality of the Holocaust and the millions of Jews exterminated simply because they were Jews."

Born Henri Groues on Aug. 5, 1912, and one of eight children in a well-heeled Lyon family, Abbe Pierre exchanged comfort for a monk's cell for six years before joining the priesthood in 1938.

He entered the Resistance in World War II, taking the name Abbe Pierre in 1942 as a cover for his work manufacturing fake identity papers and helping Jews cross the border to Switzerland.

Elected to parliament after the war in 1945, his devotion to the "street sleepers" was awakened. A lawmaker for seven years, he occasionally begged while organizing rag-picking among the homeless so they could fend for themselves. With the help of an ex-convict and his lawmaker's salary, the first Emmaus Community house was established in 1949 in Neuilly-Plaisance, northeast of Paris. Emmaus -- the name refers to a biblical location where Jesus appeared and was sheltered after the Resurrection -- helps the disenfranchised to help themselves and is now present in many countries. In France, he created the Abbe Pierre Foundation in 1992.

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