Ordained from poverty, priest’s life was lived for poor

The geopolitics of his childhood poverty were lost on Joseph Wresinski.

Born in 1917 in Angers, France – in the final 18 months of the Great War – Joseph knew only one thing: there wasn’t a lot to eat.

Joseph’s father, a native of a German-occupied Polish region before he immigrated to France, was viewed warily in his new land. As the bearer of a German passport, he was an untrustworthy foreigner, consigned to live with his wife and children during WWI in confinement in the Fort of Saumur and later in an abandoned secondary school in Angers.

Even a few years after the war, the Wresinskis lived in a hovel. In the winter, it was almost always cold in the home. One of the walls consisted of crates stacked on top of each other, sheathed with wrapping paper.

“When the paper split, cold drafts lashed out at us,” young Joseph recalled.

He was 4 years old when his mother heard that the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, whose convent was outside the town limits, needed someone to serve Mass each morning at 6. It was difficult for a boy that young to arise at 5 o’clock, but it would pay 40 cents a week. So, in the dark, it was a sleepy walk down the Rue Saint-Jacques, a turn onto the empty Rue Brault and down into the meadows. Sometimes, Joseph screamed in anger.

Then there was the walk to the gas works, where as a child he sorted chips of coal, some of which he brought home for the battered family stove. Joseph learned to take clay from the meadows to pack into the cracks in the stove. He remembered his walks as “paths of shame.”

Even when the Wresinskis thought they might catch a break, things happened. Joseph’s father, an engineer-mechanic, became a watchmaker, but a thief broke into his shop one night and stole the only gold watch that had been brought in for repair. As a foreigner with an already-sullied reputation, Joseph’s father decided to sell what little he owned, including his tools, to reimburse the watch’s owner.

The anger created by extreme deprivation created problems for Joseph at school. He found himself suspended after standing up for a smaller classmate who was being bullied by a much older child. He didn’t know why he fought the bully in defense of the boy, whom he barely knew, but for him it was the beginning of a “fight in which I would probably be the loser” but would carry on for the rest of his life.

Young Joseph became Father Joseph Wresinski, and you probably haven’t heard of him, but his childhood fight to eradicate extreme poverty still is being engaged throughout the world, including close to home in places like Treme and the 9th and 7th wards, anywhere and everywhere the poor have little or no voice.

As a priest, Father Wresinski practiced radical poverty by living with and accompanying the poor, first in a Quonset hut settlement in Noisy-le-Grand, 15 miles northeast of the center of Paris, in 1956. What he saw when he first stepped into the encampment was “blinding poverty.” There were six times as many people in the camp as he was serving as a parish priest.

A girl came to him with a note scribbled by her mother: “Father, my children have had nothing to eat since yesterday.” He described his new parishioners as “people under sea level.”

The strategic shift in Father Wresinski’s thinking was this: no amount of good-willed “charity” would ever eradicate poverty; poor people, who have human dignity, have the power and must organize and advocate for their rights and welfare.

Father Wresinski founded the “Aide A Toute Détresse” (“Help to Every Distress”) which later became the international ATD-Fourth World Movement, which 30 years ago brought 100,000 people to Paris to celebrate a “call to action” to the conviction that “human misery is not inevitable.”

“Wherever men and women are condemned to live in extreme poverty, human rights are violated,” Father Wresinski wrote. “To come together to ensure that these rights be respected is our solemn duty.”

Each year, Oct. 17 is designated as the “World Day for Overcoming Extreme Poverty.” It was marked in New Orleans by a march and block party. Two women – Dierdre Mauss, a native New Orleanian, and Maria Victoire, born in the Mauritius Islands southeast of Africa – organized the day.

The bear hug

Mauss began as an intern with the 4th World Movement in New York in the 1980s, when she briefly got to meet Father Wresinski during one of his U.S. visits to the house where the volunteers lived.

“I remember he didn’t speak any English and I understood very little French, but he gave me the biggest bear hug I ever had,” Mauss said. “I was preparing eggs and I had my back to him, and he said in French, ‘You need to get to know your archbishop,’ but I understood.”

Mauss said her connection in accompanying people living in poverty started as a child. Her father, Paul Steib, was an iron bender at Avondale Shipyards who never went to high school but was the company tutor to anyone needing to learn the intricacies of the job. Her mother Emma was the neighborhood mom – and cook.

Looking out for others

“I’ve always felt myself with some kind of connection to people who were looked upon as different,” Mauss said, echoing Father Wresinski’s childhood experiences. “If there was a classmate that everybody else avoided, that’s the person I wanted to be friends with.

“My parents were both welcoming people. My mom used to provide meals for the children in the neighborhood. It was never revealed to me why, except that when I knew it was time for us to eat, my friends would follow. When it was time to eat, we never had a discussion about what they had or didn’t have. We had a shotgun house, and there was a little hall when we first came in. We were lined up together and we all sat on the floor to eat.”

Victoire joined the movement 35 years ago, and she said she was drawn to Father Wresinski because of his insistence on the human dignity of the poor.

“I met him through his books,” Victoire said. “As a Catholic from my country, it was very difficult to understand why the poor have rights. He spoke about how the poor need to preserve their rights and human dignity.”

Street library connections

One of the local projects the 4th World Movement sponsors is a street library that provides reading material to children in poor neighborhoods. Those library events also attract parents and help to begin relationships among the poor, Mauss said.

Both women fondly remember Msgr. Winus Roeten, a priest of the Archdiocese of New Orleans who after 51 years as a seminarian and priest moved to France for a year to learn more about the 4th World Movement.

Local priest saw poverty 

Msgr. Roeten’s social consciousness grew out of the racism against blacks that he “discovered” while working at the U.S. Postal Service in 1943. He joined Caritas, a secular institute that was one of the first groups to work in the Desire Housing Project in the 1950s.

Msgr. Roeten recalled in a 1994 interview that people “literally lived off that garbage dump. They ate whatever was dumped that day.”

When he first met Father Wresinski in 1983 in Guatemala, Msgr. Roeten said the French priest asked him what the biggest business in the world was. That question stumped him.

“Then he told me, ‘Security,’” Msgr. Roeten said. “Think of all the money people spend on securing their homes, securing their incomes, buying insurance, national security, the arms race. There is more money spent on security than on anything else.

Stop and listen

“But until we can guarantee the security of the poorest of the poor, there is no possibility of guaranteeing the security of the richest of the rich. The idea is to be with the poor, listen to the poor, be at the service of the poor. The most powerful gift we can give is being there and letting that person speak what is so for them.”

When Msgr. Roeten died in 2013, both Mauss and Victoire were there at his bedside.

“He told Maria and me, ‘Stay close to the poor – they will lead you,’” Mauss said.

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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