Thursday, October 23, 2008

Obituaries of Note: Soer Emmanuelle

Soeur Emmanuelle - who became a chat show star late in life but spent much of it helping rubbish sweepers in the slums of Cairo - died on Sunday, less than a month before her 100th birthday.
Born Madeleine Cinquin in Brussels in 1908, she appeared in recent years alongside the likes of Zinedine Zidane and far more glamorous women as one of France's best-loved figures.
But she never let her fame get to her head: "They're not going to ask for my popularity ranking at the gates of heaven. No one is going to inscribe my score on my tombstone," she once said.
With Catholicism in free fall, the popularity of the bespectacled, hunched and wizened figure of Emmanuelle, who was often likened to Mother Theresa, has led to suggestions that the French are thirsty for philanthropic values in a consumer-obsessed society.
Renowned for her no-nonsense, maverick approach to religious orthodoxy, Emmanuelle approved contraception and the idea of priests marrying, and always kept her charity work independent of the church.
She raised puritanical eyebrows this summer by admitting to dancing into the night with dapper boys during the interwar years, falling in love with a man for his seductive intellect and lusting after the latest fashions.
"I'm no saint," she declared in a set of memoirs published this summer called I'm 100 Years Old and I'd Like to Tell You ...
Revealing the naughty nun behind her lifelong devotion to charity and Catholicism, she admitted to being torn early on between the desire for "immediate pleasure" and her religious calling. "I loved dancing, preferably with nice-looking boys. My mother used to say to me, 'You want boys to like you, to surround you, to admire you. And if you become a nun ... ' And I would tell her, 'For God, I will leave the boys alone'." -from the Telegraph

Cairo Slum

[I]n1929, after studying religion and philosophy at the Sorbonne, she entered the order of Notre-Dame de Sion.
These nuns ran several renowned French schools around the Mediterranean. Emmanuelle worked in Istanbul, Tunis and Alexandria. For nearly four decades she taught the daughters of wealthy families. This was a long way from her childhood dreams of helping the poor, or even martyrdom.
In fact it was retirement that enabled Emmanuelle to fulfil that dream. With the blessing of her superiors, she settled in Cairo at the age of 62, hoping to succour the lepers. When this proved impossible (too many official obstacles), she settled for the rag-pickers, and was soon living in a metal hut in the city slums at Ezbet el-Nakhl.
It was a squalid, brutal world of rats, lice and poverty, of cheap alcohol and of violence between children and against women. Sœur Emmanuelle, as she soon became known, taught the children to read, helped mothers to regain their footing and their pride, took children to see the Nile. She opened a dispensary and kindergarten. The countless examples of male negligence and brutality made her a staunch feminist. Her experience led her to the conclusion that has since been spread by so many organisations and experts: education and the liberation of women are the best hope of poor countries.
At first, the majority of her flock were Copts, but she was soon working with Muslims as well, and refused to let religion get in the way of human need. On her door was a cross and crescent moon, with the words “God is love”. She worked tirelessly to bring the religious communities together.
“Respect those who think differently,” was one of her favourite maxims. Later she would be one of the rare public figures to speak out against the French Government’s ban on wearing the veil, and on the creeping association of Islam with fanaticism:
“Today, if I were a Christian at school, I’d wear the veil simply out of a spirit of freedom,” she said.

Cairo Slum

Soeur Emmanuelle revieves the Legion d'Honneur in 1987

As her activities developed, in Egypt and across the world, she began travelling tirelessly to raise funds through her association, Les Amis de Sœur Emmanuelle. Obsequious she was not. At one meeting in Geneva, she told her smart audience: “If I can’t find the $30,000, I’ll just have to do a hold-up.”
Sœur Emmanuelle made her first appearance on French television in 1990, and her mixture of infectious enthusiasm, humour and the unquenched moral indignation with which she laid into bourgeois complacency and political corruption soon made her a firm favourite, identified by her uniform of grey blouse, grey headscarf and black trainers.
It may be her candour and unorthodox behaviour that prompted her superiors to put pressure on her to leave Egypt. She did so in 1993, with the greatest reluctance — “I wish I could have died surrounded by my rag-pickers”. She moved to a retirement home for nuns in Callian, Var, in south east France. However, even at 85, she continued to travel and to campaign against poverty.

She wrote several books about her experiences, her faith and her cause:
  • Richesse de la pauvreté (The Riches of Poverty, 2001)
  • Secrets de vie (Secrets of Life, 2000)
  • Yalla les jeunes (Come on, you young people!, 1997)
  • Le paradis, c'est les autres (Heaven is other people, 1995), and..
  • J’ai cent ans et je voudrais vous dire (I’m a hundred years old, and I want to tell you, August 2008).

A spokesman for the Asmae-Association said she was not suffering from any illness when she died, but was tired.

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