The first companion
The first Emmaus community was founded in Paris in 1949 by Father Henri-Antoine Groues, better known as the Abbé Pierre, a Catholic priest, MP and former member of the French Resistance during the Second World War. As an MP, he fought to provide homes for those who lived on the streets of Paris.
One night, a man called Georges was brought to the Abbé Pierre. Georges had been released after 20 years in prison, only to find his family unable to cope with his reappearance. Homeless and despairing, he had tried to commit suicide in the Seine. The Abbé Pierre did not just offer him a place to sleep. He asked for his help. He told Georges of the homeless mothers who came to him for help for them and their children and how he could not cope with the problem on his own. Could Georges join him in his mission to help them?
Georges became the first Emmaus companion, living with the Abbé Pierre and helping him to build temporary homes for those in need, first in the priest’s own garden, then wherever land could be bought or scrounged.
He later said; “Whatever else he might have given me – money, home, somewhere to work – I’d have still tried to kill myself again. What I was missing, and what he offered, was something to live for.”
The Rag Pickers of Paris
In 1951, Abbé Pierre resigned as an MP to devote himself to fighting homelessness and poverty. He had relied on his salary to pay for Georges and the 18 men who now formed the first community and were still building homes for those who desperately needed them.
So the former MP and resistance hero toured the smart restaurants of Paris asking for donations. The companions were outraged. They told Abbé Pierre firmly that begging compromised their – and his – self respect.
Instead, to raise the money they needed, they became “rag pickers”, collecting things that people no longer wanted and selling them on. So the concept of companions running self supporting businesses, with the profits going to those in greater need was born.