Monday, October 20, 2008

"The Universal Sister" Heads Home

The woman routinely voted France's most-beloved has died.

No, not Carla Bruni... if anything, quite the opposite:
A Roman Catholic nun who became one of France's most favourite personalities after battling poverty in the slums of Cairo, has died aged 99, her retirement home said on Monday.

Soeur Emmanuelle, born Madeleine Cinquin in Belgium in 1908, was ranked France's most popular woman for several years running, and her sometimes outspoken views struck a chord in secular society.

She took religious vows in 1931 and taught literature and philosophy in the Middle East for most of her life. When she retired as a teacher, she moved to Cairo where she spent two decades helping slum dwellers.

She returned to France in 1993 and despite her advanced age, started working in the poor neighbourhoods of Paris, telling reporters she was shocked by the deprivation she encountered.

Known for her straight-talk and quick repartee as much as her large glasses and wrinkled smile, she defied the Catholic hierarchy by supporting such controversial views as contraception and priests marrying. Condolences from French politicians and officials poured in on Monday.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi applauded her efforts around the world and her contact with other faiths, comparing her to Mother Teresa who worked with the poor in India.

"Her charity went beyond borders, as with Mother Teresa," he told French Catholic news agency I.Media.

The secular Soeur Emmanuelle association she founded almost 30 years ago provides health care and education to some 80,000 deprived children in Egypt, Lebanon, Sudan, the Philippines, Madagascar, India, Burkina Faso and France.
Said to have called the Mother Teresa comparisons "ridiculous," Soeur Emmanuelle recalled her pre-profession past in a series of interviews earlier this year, summed up by the declaration "I'm no saint."

Emmanuelle's male counterpart -- the beloved anti-poverty crusader Abbe Pierre -- died at 94 early last year. At his passing, the Pope sent a telegram of tribute and a state funeral was held at Notre-Dame.

The two are shown above in a 2002 photo, the Legion d'Honneur -- France's highest honor -- around the sister's neck.