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Heroic French Priest Abbe Pierre Dies


France has lost one of its heroes: a 94-year-old priest and champion of the homeless called Abbe Pierre. He died from a lung infection at a Paris hospital early Monday, plunging the nation into mourning. Lisa Bryant has more from the French capital on his extraordinary life.

A monk, a priest, a one-time resistance fighter and lawmaker - Abbe Pierre wore many hats, but he is mostly known as a passionate defender of the homeless, who issued a wake-up call to the nation during the bitterly cold winter of 1954.

After a homeless woman died of cold on the French streets, Abbe Pierre went on the radio. People must send the suffering a message of welcome, he said. That whoever you are come in, eat, sleep, find joy again, we love you.

The French priest also made practical requests: for French to deliver blankets, tents and cooking stoves to help the homeless survive that cold winter, half a century ago. The drive pushed the French parliament to pass legislation soon after to create 12-thousand new shelters for the homeless.

Born Henri Groues to an affluent family in 1912, he became a Capuchin monk as a young man, taking on the name Abbe Pierre. But he was a man of action, who left the monastery after six years. He became a member of the French resistance during World War II, helping to hide Jews from the Nazis.

After the war, he became a deputy in France's National Assembly. But the bulk of his career was as a grassroots activist. In 1949, he founded the nonprofit Emmaus organization that worked on behalf of the homeless. It has since spun into an international movement, with chapters in more than 50 countries.

And for years, Abbe Pierre has been a national hero, topping popularity charts ahead of politicians and movie stars. He loved to crack jokes and he defied the Vatican by supporting the concept of married and female priests.

His death Monday sparked a rash of eulogies. All of France is touched by Abbe Pierre's death, French President Jacques Chirac said in a statement. French Socialist politician Bernard Kouchner described knowing Abbe Pierre as a joy.

Kouchner, who founded the non-profit Doctors Without Borders, told French radio he had learned a lot from Abbe Pierre. Now, he said, we need to return to the lessons Abbe Pierre has given the nation.