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Mourners pay tribute to Sister Emmanuelle

Latest update : 2008-10-22

Sister Emmanuelle, a Catholic nun who dedicated her life to helping the poor, died Monday at the age of 99. Mourners gathered in the small town of Callian, in southern France, on Wednesday to pay their last respects.

France paid a warm tribute Wednesday to Sister Emmanuelle, a much-loved 99-year-old nun who dedicated much of her life to the service of the poorest of the poor in both Egypt and her homeland.

She was given a private burial in the town of Callian in a ceremony reflecting the simplicity of her life, and was later to be honoured with a requiem mass in Notre Dame cathedral in Paris to mark the esteem in which she was held.

Sister Emmanuelle, whom the Vatican has compared to Mother Teresa, died on Monday after a long career working with the poor and homeless.

She was buried in the village cemetery of Callian, where she had lived since 1993, after a service for family members and friends from the retirement home belonging to her Catholic order, the Congregation of Notre Dame de Sion.

Her funeral came as her publisher released a transcript of a recording Sister Emmanuelle had made before her death to promote the last volume of her memoirs -- "Confessions of a Nun" -- written for publication after her death.

"When you hear this message, I will no longer be there. In telling of my life -- all of my life -- I wanted to bear witness that love is more powerful than death," she said, according to the text.

"I have confessed everything, the good and the less good, and I can tell you about it. Where I am now, life does not end for those who know how to love."

Later on Wednesday, in Paris, French President Nicolas Sarkozy was to lead France's great and the good at televised prayers of remembrance in Notre Dame's Gothic splendour.

Jacques Delors, the former president of the European Commission, was to read a passage on charity from the Epistle of Saint Paul in French, and a Lebanese priest the same passage in Arabic.

Sister Emmanuelle, who had been called Madeleine Cinquin before taking her vows, was best known in France for her frequent appearances on television to campaign passionately for the poor and homeless.

She came to media attention here with her work with some of the world's poorest people, the residents of the Ezbet El-Nakhl slum in Cairo who eke out a living by scavenging through the garbage produced in the huge Egyptian city.

The nun also won many French hearts with her straight talk and her defiance of Catholic orthodoxy by backing contraception and marriage for priests.

Cinquin was born into a comfortable middle-class home in Brussels, to a French father -- who died in a drowning incident that she witnessed when she was just six years old -- and a Belgian mother.

She led a carefree life as a young woman, which she later described in a memoir that recounted her years studying at university in 1920s Paris and dancing and flirting in her free time.

But at 23 she decided to become a nun in the Congregation of Notre Dame de Sion, an organisation originally set up with the aim of promoting the conversion of Jews to Christianity.

Taking the name Sister Emmanuelle, she went to teach literature in Turkey, where she came into contact with Jewish and Muslim intellectuals.

She taught in a school for well-off Turkish children but made a point of showing them the hardships of life by taking her classes to carry out sociological studies in poor areas.

She later continued her teaching career in Tunisia and then in Egypt.

In 1971, when she was 62 years old, Sister Emmanuelle finally got permission from her congregation to start work on her cherished project to go and live among Cairo's poorest people.

She set up schools, clinics and play areas for the children of Ezbet El-Nakhl and later published a book about her experiences.

The association she went on to set up in 1980 -- called the Asmae-Association Soeur Emmanuelle -- eventually extended its work for the poor to Brazil, Burkina Faso, Haiti, the Philippines, Senegal and Sudan.

She was called back to France in 1993, at the age of 85, despite her wish to stay on in Cairo. In various television appearances, in her white veil and large glasses, she spoke out for the homeless and the poor of French cities.   

Date created : 2008-10-22