Asking a moment of silence for Soeur Emmanuelle, a wonderful woman religious who devoted her life to the poorest of the world...and supported married priests!
By John Lichfield in Paris
Monday, 20 October 2008
Soeur Emmanuelle, the "French Mother Theresa", who was once described as a "nun with attitude", died today aged 99.
In the last four decades of her life, after her official "retirement", Soeur Emmanuelle worked tirelessly for the poorest of the poor, starting with 20 years among the rag-scavengers of Cairo. Her humour and tough-talking – she once threatened to rob a bank – pushed Soeur Emmanuelle late in her life into the leading places of lists of the most popular people in France.
Soeur Emmanuelle was hailed by the Vatican yesterday as a "personification of Christian charity" whose actions, like those of Mother Theresa of Calcutta, erased national frontiers.
However, Soeur Emmanuelle was also a constant thorn in the side of the Vatican.
She often spoke out in favour of married priests. In the last of her many books, published in August, she revealed that she once wrote to Pope John Paul II to say that the best gift that he could bestow on the Cairo rag-collectors would be the contraceptive pill. (J'ai 100 ans et je voudrais vous dire... -- "I am 100 and I want to tell you...")
She also revealed that, as a young nun, she had fallen in love with a "charming, handsome" young man. She said nothing to him at the time. Twenty years later, she received a letter which she knew to be in his hand-writing. She was, she admitted, "a little disappointed" to find that it was an official letter on a routine, administrative matter.
Soeur Emmanuelle died 26 days short of her 100th birthday at the retirement home of her order in Callian, in south eastern France.
"I am scared of dying in agony," she said in her final book. "People talk of the horror of death. Horrors are horrid. I never liked suffering. I never thought that suffering was a useful thing."
At the age of 23 – abandoning a fun-loving young womanhood – Madeleine Cinquin took the vows of the sisters of Notre-Dame de Sion and became Sister Emmanuelle. She asked to be sent to work with the poor but was ordered by her mother superior to become a teacher of daughters of the Turkish aristocracy and bourgeoisie. By influencing the minds of the rich, her superior insisted, she would do more good for the poor than by teaching the poor.
Soeur Emmanuelle accepted this decision until she "retired" at the age of 62 in 1971. She set off to Cairo to work with lepers but ended up living with the poorest of the Cairo slum-dwellers, the rag-pickers, who were a mixture of Coptic Christians and Muslims.
In her books, Sister Emmanuelle wrote of the squalor and violence but also the humanity and humour of the Cairo slums. From nothing, she started an organisation which created slum schools, a children's garden and a drug dispensary.
Her assistance was open to all, muslims and copts, with no attempt at conversion. On the door of her rough hut, little better than those occupied by the rag-pickers, she placed a cross and a crescent and the words "God is Love."
In 1976, after enlisting the aid of an Egyptian nun, who was named Sister Sarah, to look after her Cairo work, she began to tour the world to gather funds for the Association Soeur Emmanuelle.
In one fund-raising meeting in Geneva, when little cash was offered, she told her audience: "I need $30,000 and if I can't get it here, I will have no choice but to rob a bank."
She raised the money (legally) and used it to fund a factory for re-cycling Cairo waste -- a more lucrative form of the rag-scavengers' profession.
When she "retired" a second time in 1993, at the age of 84, she continued to tour the world to raise money for the poor.
Among many tributes yesterday, President Nicolas Sarkozy said that Soeur Emmanuelle was "everyone's sister -- a woman of action, for whom charity meant concrete acts of solidarity spanned the world."