Emmaus was founded in Paris in 1949 by Father Henri-Antoine Groues, better known as the Abbé Pierre (pictured right), a Catholic priest and MP. During the Second World War he had been a member of the French Resistance; after the war had finished he began to fight for the rights of those who found themselves homeless.
One night, a man called Georges was brought to the Abbé Pierre. 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 men and women who came to him for help 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. 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'.
In 1951, Abbé Pierre resigned as an MP. He no longer had a salary to support 18 men who now formed the first Community and were still building homes for those who desperately needed them. To raise the money they needed, the men became ‘rag pickers’, taking 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.
Emmaus in the UK
Emmaus arrived in the UK in the early 1990s. It was inspired by a comment from a homeless man to a Cambridge business man, Selwyn Image. When Selwyn asked him what he wanted, the man replied:
‘I want to work and belong. I want my self-respect back. I don’t want to queue for hand-outs or have to beg for food. And I don’t want people to cross the street to avoid me.’
At that point, Selwyn remembered his time as a volunteer at the Emmaus Community in Paris while he was a student, 30 years before. He started introducing people to the idea of Emmaus.
The first Emmaus Community in Britain opened near Cambridge and in the following year, work started to set up a Community in Coventry, and projects in London, Dover and Manchester followed closely behind. Emmaus Communities continue to be established in the UK, all based on the Abbé Pierre’s founding principles of acceptance, sharing, working for others in greater need, and self-respect.
By 1990, when Emmaus arrived in Britain, there were Emmaus Communities in 38 countries around the world. In 2004, the emmaus Movement includes 299 members and 122 associated groups spread out over 5 continents (Africa, South America, North America, Asia, and Europe). To find out more about Emmaus around the world, visit the Emmaus International website.