Sister Emmanuelle, the little sister of rag-pickers
Born in Belgium on 16 November 1908 to a Belgian mother and a French father, Madeleine Cinquin, better known as Sister Emmanuelle, was anything but a typical nun. She was a staunch defender of Pope John Paul II, never renounced her deep faith in Christ, and was regularly one of the most popular figures in France, yet she never attempted to convert anyone to her own beliefs. Extolling the virtues of contraception, championing the right of priests to marry and open to dialogue between religions, her goal was first and foremost to "give love, more and more love, through religion. Through all religions".
Sister Emmanuelle was long considered the alter ego of Father Damien and her journey was far from typical. She came from a well-off family which expanded the fine lingerie business in Brussels, although the childhood of this 'little sister of the poor' was influenced by witnessing her father drown in September 1914.
Faith and the poor
Madeleine Cinquin soon found called to Christ, an interest that became a vocation when she joined the Congregation of Notre Dame de Sion as a postulant in 1929. She took her vows two years later, becoming Sister Emmanuelle. She enjoyed being hands-on, particularly helping underprivileged children, so she declined the long ecclesiastic apprenticeship she was offered and was soon sent to Istanbul, where she found in her superior, Mother Elvira, a role model and the person who finally confirmed her life choices.
Sent to Tunis in 1954 due to cooler relations with her new superior, Sister Emmanuelle was forced to give lessons to colonists' daughters, whom she described as superficial. This was where she spent the three darkest years of her life. She finally escaped and obtained an Arts degree in June 1962. After another brief stay in Turkey, she was sent to Egypt to teach at the Sion College in Alexandria, where a new class of students completely indifferent to poverty awaited her. Sick of working in an environment she did not cherish, she decided to leave her class and go to work with young girls in Bacos, an extremely poor district of the city. She began to spend more and more time working with the most disadvantaged citizens, finally devoting all her time to helping them.
The rag-picker of Cairo
A number of complications prevented her from caring for the lepers in Cairo like Father Damien, whom she greatly admired, so Sister Emmanuelle went to work among the "pariahs" of Egypt in Ezbet el Nakhl, one of Cairo's poorest slums. The Egyptian social hierarchy of the time considered these "zabbaleens", or rag-pickers, as sub-humans who deserved to live in the most abject poverty and in the most unimaginable filth. After an undeniably difficult but eventually successful integration period, the Franco-Belgian nun gradually became the "rag-picker of Cairo".
Her main activity was education, particularly that of young girls to support female emancipation; all her work was performed in the light of her increasingly deep-rooted Christian values, although she never tried to impose her vision of God. It goes without saying that this was a huge mission, one that was almost impossible in this lawless and extremely macho society, where men had all the rights. Sister Emmanuelle nevertheless managed to establish a number of new practices through local work and international appeals. Her support on the ground, including Sister Sara, as well as her extensive awareness-raising tour of Europe in 1974, allowed her to build a number of educational and cultural facilities such as playgrounds, schools, training rooms and leisure areas. In 1982, she left to take care of the rag-pickers of Mokattam, the largest community of "zabbaleens", which comprised some 23,000 people living amidst the waste. In 1985, she decided to settle in the Meadi Tora slum, and then went on to Khartoum, in Sudan, where poverty was - and still is - a real curse for a large part of the population.
Rest is for eternity
Sister Emmanuelle never stopped helping the most disadvantaged in society. Her work in Egypt, which earned her Egyptian nationality in 1991, led to thousands of children going to school, a marked drop in violence, and the liberation of many women. In 2002, she was awarded the rank of Commander of the French Legion of Honour, before being promoted to Grand Officer in 2008. In 2005, she became Grand Officer of the Belgian Order of the Crown.
The little sister of the poor, inexhaustible despite her advanced age and the energy she had devoted to her work over the years, was forced by her congregation to return to France and rejoin her community in 1993. But even during this "retirement", Sister Emmanuelle continued to work locally and use her influence wherever she could. She could regularly be found working with the homeless, prisoners or drug victims, as well as speaking at a number of new conferences.
She used to say that "rest is for eternity, with our Creator". It was work, regardless of people's religious or other choices, that kept her going. After a life dedicated to others, fully respecting individual free will, it is difficult not to hope that she is enjoying this eternal rest, with her Creator.