I decided to go and see where Abbé Pierre was buried because I knew I was going to France. I have been before, when I went with school to Boulogne, and when I went to the Emmaus Salon in 2014. That was when Dave proposed to me beneath the Eiffel Tower. I met Dave when we were both companions at Emmaus Preston. It took a long time for us to get together, and now we will be celebrating our wedding anniversary in August.
I just thought, I can’t go to France and not see what went on with Abbé Pierre, so we went to Esteville and saw his house, garden and the chapel where he gave services. The church is beautiful. His grave goes all the along the side of the wall of the church next to companions, including the first companion at Emmaus, Georges. Each grave has the dates people were born, the dates people died and the dates they joined Emmaus. There were two old people tending the bushes that were by his grave, which was really nice. There were signs for him everywhere, pointing to Abbé Pierre.
You go down this path and go through the street and there’s loads of artwork of Abbé Pierre. You come to a visitors’ centre and shop and go through that. There are outdoor tables, and a shed that’s got some great graffiti of him.
The first bit you go into is a museum where they show a video, then you go into a square garden with the chapel on the right and on the left is the house. When you go into the upstairs, you can see he had one of the rooms above the door. I didn’t see where anyone else lived.
It felt so nice when I was there. It was surreal seeing his room with his gown on the bed and his walking stick. On the bedside table was a little glass and a little salt and pepper. What made me laugh was next to a little TV there was no knife, no fork, just a spoon next to the glass, which had what looked like wine in it. In a framed box, you could see his walking stick and beret. I wish there were English translations, but I’ve taken lots of pictures and I’ll get them translated into English in time.
He had a workshop next to his room, too. When you come up the stairs by where the sink was, there is a narrow room with shelves, with tools and bits and pieces. He collected lots of stuff to do with cameras. He loved taking photos of people. I sat in his garden and all I could hear were the chickens and you just felt completely calm.
I feel like I learned more about him as a person. He obviously never lost his faith because he gave his own services in the chapel. When I do an induction with people now and brief them about how Emmaus started, seeing this all brought it to life, like seeing Georges’ grave. He was the first Emmaus companion. It makes you feel connected.
If Abbé Pierre hadn’t done what he did years ago people wouldn’t have been where Emmaus is now. It’s unique.
There were pictures of the chiffonnières – the rag-pickers – who started selling things people were throwing away. There were items on display, showing what was considered rubbish, which looked like they had been some of the first upcycling by Emmaus. You can imagine it as a house with all those people living there.
There were lots of suitcases collected and kept in one of the rooms. Perhaps these belonged to the companions when they came?
There were pictures of different people recycling. One image showed a man, part of Emmaus in Brazil, with his leg amputated stripping metal down. In another, it looks like they are sorting through clothes. There are parallels to the shops and what we do today.
Another thing that made me laugh was a fridge that had been left outside, so they’re still recycling things there at the museum itself.
Abbé Pierre was born and lived in Lyon for a bit, but was buried in Esteville with 40 companions, including the first, Georges, and Lucie, who co-founded Emmaus, is buried next to him also.
It was fascinating what he was able to do and how many people he has helped. Now he may no longer be here, but his work is still helping people out of homelessness.
When he started to build this community, there were pictures of people sleeping in tents. One didn’t have a tent, and in the picture, there was this person just sleeping on a grate. I was seeing someone who was homeless making their own home.
I never used to have a single photo. Now I have stacks of them!
Not only did I never imagine going to France, I never thought I’d still be with Emmaus after all this time. When I first came to Emmaus Preston as a companion, I thought I’d just stay here for a few months. But because I became so invested in Emmaus and what it is all about, I think I will be with Emmaus until the day I die.
Emmaus is about helping people. When I was homeless, I didn’t have anyone. In the past it was just me, myself and I. Like Abbé Pierre says, Emmaus gives you a purpose in life. It is about knowing we are there for someone when they need us. For the first time, you feel like you are somewhere you belong.
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