French priest Abbe Pierre, known for his fight against homelessness, dies at 94

Abbe Pierre, a French priest praised as a living legend for devoting his life to helping the homeless, 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, his foundation said. He had been admitted with a lung infection Jan. 14.

The founder of the international Emmaus Community for the poor, Abbe Pierre had served as a spokesman for 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 months.

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

A former monk, Resistance fighter and parliamentarian, Abbe Pierre long remained spry and determined despite the infirmities of old age. Last year, he spoke to parliament from his wheelchair, urging lawmakers not to reform a law on low-income housing.

Often donning a beret and cape, Abbe Pierre a code name from his World War II days topped polls as France's most beloved public figure year after year. He had the ear of French leaders for decades.

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. ...

"It is love that engenders this holy anger. They are inseparable."

In 1992, he refused the Legion of Honor, France's highest award, because he considered government policies toward the homeless inadequate. He accepted the honor when it was proposed again in 2001. At the time, Chirac praised Abbe Pierre as a "living legend."

The legend began in the winter of 1954 when 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.

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

There have been some blips in the saint-like career of Abbe Pierre, however.

Scandal swirled in 1996 when he 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, but not before fleeing into brief exile at an Italian monastery and threatening never to return to France.

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."

Always frank, Abbe Pierre became even more so in old age. In a revealing 2005 book, the priest suggested he had sex as a younger man and said he favored allowing priests to marry. In "Mon Dieu ... Pourquoi? ("My God ... Why?"), he also wrote that he supported unions of gay couples and the ordination of women as priests.

Born Henry Groues on Aug. 5, 1912, one of eight children in a well-heeled Lyon family, he 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 alms 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 born in 1949 in Neuilly-Plaisance, northeast of Paris. Emmaus the name refers to a biblical location where Jesus appeared after the resurrection and was sheltered helps the disenfranchised to help themselves and is now present in many countries. In France, he created his own Abbe Pierre Foundation in 1992, reports AP.

Besides his Legion of Honor, Abbe Pierre was twice decorated for his wartime activities, with the Croix de Guerre and the Resistance Medal. In his interview with AP, he conceded to one regret: "Everything I was not able to do."

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