PARIS (AFP) — Sister Emmanuelle, France's answer to Mother Teresa, who has died aged 99 was an unorthodox nun who spent 20 years helping the poor in a Cairo slum before returning to France to defend the homeless.
The diminutive Roman Catholic nun, whose real name was Madeleine Cinquin, was best known in France for her frequent appearances on television to campaign passionately for the poor and homeless.
She came to media attention with her work with some of the world's poorest people, the residents of the Ezbet El-Nakhl slum in Cairo who eke out their living by scavenging in the garbage produced in the giant city.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Sister Emmanuelle was a woman who "touched our hearts," a "woman of action for whom charity meant concrete actions of solidarity and fraternity."
The Vatican said her work, like that of Nobel peace laureate Mother Teresa, "showed how Christian charity was able to go beyond differences of nationality, race, religion."
Madeleine 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 an ordinary bourgeois life, studying at university and in her free time going out dancing with friends.
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 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.
The French remember her for her frequent television appearances, bespectacled and wearing a white veil, in which she spoke out for the homeless and the poor of France and the world.
She also wrote several books, one of which, "Confessions of a Nun," she said could only be published after her death.
She liked to say that she was no saint, but a woman who was "vindictive," "irascible" and "a little bit feminist," and she admitted that she had been in love with a man but had decided to devote herself instead to God.
In her last years she was wheelchair-bound. She said her death would simply be a "renuion between a child and her father."
She died peacefully in her sleep overnight Sunday -- a month before her 100th birthday -- in a retirement home in the southern French town of Callian, said the Asmae-Association Soeur Emmanuelle.
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