French Prepare to Pay Homage to Abbe Pierre

France will hold a national memorial service Friday to honor a beloved priest who worked tirelessly for the homeless. Abbe Pierre died Monday at the age of 94.

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France is paying respects to a 94-year-old Catholic priest who died earlier this week. A national memorial service will be held tomorrow at the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Abbe Pierre was a militant activist who fought for the rights of the homeless. In 2005, his countrymen voted him the third greatest French person of all time, just after Charles de Gaulle and Louis Pasteur.

Eleanor Beardsley has a report from Paris.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Hundreds of people fill the narrow street outside the Val de Grace Hospital chapel, waiting in near silence for their turn to join the thousands who have filed past Abbe Pierre's casket. Parisian Ann Bokur(ph) says she wanted to pay her last respects to a great man.

Ms. ANNE BOKUR: (Through translator) For French people, he was very important. He was incarnation of kindness, humility and especially love. And his life is a moral lesson for all of us.

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Unidentified Woman #1: (Speaking foreign language)

BEARDSLEY: All week long, French television had broadcast retrospectives of Abbe Pierre's life. He was born Henri Groues into a well-to-do family in Lyon. At the age of 18, he became a Capuchin monk, pledging himself to a life of poverty. He took the codename Abbe Pierre when he was a member of the French Resistance during World War II, helping Jews escape to neutral Switzerland.

People say it was during this time that the young priest learned his trademark skills of organizing networks, fighting the system and breaking laws for the dignity of man. After the war, Abbe Pierre became a member of parliament, and in the bitter winter of 1954, he took to the airwaves to demand shelter and supplies for thousands of homeless people.

Mr. ABBE PIERRE (Catholic Priest): (Speaking foreign language)

BEARDSLEY: My friends, help. A woman has just frozen to death, said Abbe Pierre in his now famous radio address. It is cold, and we are warm. But during the night, men, women and children are sleeping on the sidewalk in the snow in the middle of Paris.

Donations poured in, and his call for help brought the issue of homelessness to public attention. Soon after, Abbe Pierre started a charitable organization, Emmaus, which now operates in 39 countries selling donated furniture and appliances to fund housing for the poor.

The activist priest became a familiar figure in France in his dark cape, beret, and walking stick. But he was also controversial. He shook the church's establishment in a 2005 book when he admitted to having loved several women. He also supported marriage for priests and the ordination of women. Xavier Vandromme is the director of Emmaus in Paris.

Mr. XAVIER VANDROMME (Director, Emmaus, Paris): (Through translator) His life was a paradox. He was a religious man, but he never evangelized. His message was always about the dignity of the citizen, and this is what the French loved. He inspired people to fight injustice as citizens. And that's exactly what happened recently.

Abbe Pierre inspired a recent campaign for the homeless. Activists set up tents in cities throughout France and invited local residents to come and experience life on the streets. The public response was so strong that on January 17th, parliament passed a law making housing an inalienable right in France, just like education and healthcare. Abbe Pierre it seems had finally won the battle of his life.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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