Witnesses: Sister Emmanuelle, the nun of the rag dealers of Cairo

“To live in a hut in Egypt to share the life of the poorest: to eat what they eat and to live like them in a makeshift hut; in a nutshell, I shared their experience of radical poverty.”

Madeleine Cinquin, better known as Sister Emmanuelle was born in Brussels on November 16, 1908. Her father was French and her mother Belgian. She lived through her worst trauma in September 1914: “It was a Sunday morning during the autumn of 1914. The First World War had just been declared. Before joining his regiment, my father wanted to spend some days with the family at Ostende. He was a strong swimmer, and decided to defy the North Sea, which was quite rough that day. He was carried away from the shore. Together with my sister and my brother, I shouted as loud as possible `Father, come back!’ He never made it; his body was recovered the following day. To me, my father meant all the joys of a fortunate girl, and there he was, lifeless in front of my eyes.”

Happiness gave way to sadness. Later on in life, Sr. Emmanuelle confessed that that traumatic episode was the source of her destiny. She was very much aware that things are short-lived: “One Sunday morning a girl understood that she cannot cling to foam. Without even being aware of it, my vocation can be traced to that moment. I wanted the absolute, not what is ephemeral.”

For several years she kept searching for happiness in worldly things: “From my early youth I felt a void within me. I enjoyed dancing, going to the cinema and having fun. All these things, however, left me empty handed. While I was living in Brussels, I often used to go to London for short stays. I used to have fun, and then came back home. And then what? I did the same in Paris . . . However, that void within me persisted, and it was ruining my youth. I tried hard to fill it. I started to search in God for that unbounded and lasting love that earthly life had refused to give me. I wanted an absolute. That absolute was the love of Christ in my heart, and which I would eventually bring to many marginalized children in this world.”

She found this absolute in religious life. In 1929, at twenty years of age, she joined the Notre Dame de Sion Congregation. This Congregation was founded by Teodor Ratisbonne in 1843. It was a teaching institution which had many famous French-speaking colleges around the Mediterranean. In 1923 she made her religious profession and took the name Emmanuelle. “The choice of the name was mine. Emmanuelle means ‘God among us, and I always thought it was a nice name.” After obtaining her degree at the Sorbonne University, she started on a forty-year long career teaching philosophy and literature in Istanbul, Tunisia and Egypt.

In 1971, when she was sixty-two years old and therefore, technically a pensioner, she had a first-hand experience of the real poverty that existed in the shantytowns of Cairo. That event transformed her into the `angel of the rag dealers’ of the Egyptian metropolis. Having obtained her superiors’ permission, she set out to serve those most in need. Her radical nature suggested to her to work among the lepers. However, the leprosarium was situated in a militarized zone, and so she needed the authorization of the Health, the Foreign and the War Ministries. This was too complicated for her. A young secretary working in the Nunciature suggested the shantytowns of the rag dealers. That is where she went and she immediately felt at home. She put her few things in a hut, and from that moment on, Mother Emmanuelle became Sister Emmanuelle, the nun of the rag dealers of Cairo.

She worked at Ezbet el-Nakhl, in the Suez area for twelve years. She was perhaps the first missionary to look after the rag dealers that populated the vast periphery of Cairo. Indeed, it was an ill-famed place with mud-filled alleys. Thousands of Coptic Christians lived there. All day long they searched in the rubbish for whatever they could sell.

In her daily work, Sr. Emmanuelle was tireless. Her great generosity and her dedication to the poor stemmed from her love and faith in Christ. The source of her extraordinary self-giving was God, that Absolute that she searched for when still young. She excluded no one from her care. The Coptics were the majority; yet she made time also for the Muslims, and tried to make the two communities come closer to each other. Her attitude was clear: no attempt at converting the Muslims, but only an effort at mutual understanding. On the door of her hut, she put a cross and a half moon, together with the motto: “God is love.”

The contact with the diverse cultures led Sr. Emmanuelle to respect every person, even those who held opposite views. She used to say “Contrary to what Jean-Paul Sartre says, the others are not our hell. They are heaven if there is at least a little love. I must admit that I passed twenty years of paradise among my rag dealers.”

She was extremely frank in voicing her opinions and this endeared her to her people. Her secret was charity, her complete sharing with the others. The foundation of her charity was her love for Mary, a love that blossomed while she was still with the Daughters of Our Lady of Sion. In Mary she found her model of service, humility and total generosity.

In 1993, Sr. Emmanuelle was eighty-five years old, and she started to feel the effects of old age. After twenty-two years of hard work, her Superior General asked her to leave Cairo and go back to France. She obeyed; however, she confided that leaving Cairo was not easy. On more than one occasion she expressed her wish “to die with her rag dealers.” Once in France, she became a praying nun, united through prayer with all the poor of the world. Others will continue the service she had been giving. In fact, in 1980, she founded the Amie — Sr. Emmanuelle Association, a non-governmental organization that is at work in various countries.

In France, however, she couldn’t stay still. She started to write books, address conferences and make TV appearances, always with the intention of making people aware of the problems of the poor and raising funds. She even got involved in helping the many migrants that were arriving in France.

In her humble way she said: “I never thought of founding institutions and structures. I just wanted to live poor, do my best to witness to Christ with my life by loving every person equally, and trying to help those persons that God put in my path. Now, being close to the encounter with my Bridegroom, and my health is fading away, I can only radiate love. I never cease thanking the Lord for my old age. Today, even more than in the past, I feel I am totally a sister to all those that I meet, whether they be in Cairo or here in Europe. I have only to listen, seeing that my withered hands can do nothing. See, after having roamed the streets of the world, this is my present mission: to breathe into me the love from God’s heart, and once it is in me, I can spread it around like ‘a light that is never switched off and illuminates the night.”

Sr. Emmanuelle died at Callian, France, on October 20, 2008, a few days before turning one hundred. The Cardinal Archbishop of Paris, Mgr. Andre Vingt-Trois, in his last farewell called her “a loving woman of action that will be sorely missed.” She was a woman who “managed to rally her contemporaries in favour of the most needy with her direct approach and her simplicity. Until the very end she tirelessly gave witness to her boundless energy and rock-solid faith… I recall something she wrote in one of her books: ‘I feel an immense gratitude to all those persons who have taught me that love is stronger than death, and that it has in it a seed of eternity.” The Cardinal concluded: “Following her example, we will never cease to work in favour of the poorest and witness to the love of God for humanity.”

(Darci Vilarinho)

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