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French Nun With a Past Full of Naughty Habits Declares She's "No Saint"


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It's hard to tell the tale of an amazing woman who has lived for almost a century in just one book. In fact it's probably impossible.

And although there have already been eight others written by one of France's most remarkable women, this is likely to be the last.

"J'ai 100 ans et je voudrais vous dire " (I'm 100 years old and I would like to tell you) published last Thursday, documents the life story of Soeur Emmanuelle, a remarkable woman by anyone's standards.

Born in Brussels, Belgium on November 16 1908, Madeleine Cinquin as was - now Soeur Emmanuelle, has a glorious past - both laic and religious - that has endeared her to the French over the years.

The 99-year-old no longer gives many interviews, which is not surprising given her advanced age and deteriorating health, but this volume of memoirs and reflections is the exception.

Co-authored by the writers Annabelle Cayrol and Jacques Duquesne, it's a series of interviews carried out by the two of them that reveal perhaps the naughtier side of a woman who is well known to the French and much loved throughout the country as a whole. In a recent poll of this country's most popular people, she ranked sixth.

While not exactly being an ecclesiastical bodice ripper, this book is not far from it, outlining the outspoken and controversial views that have often seen her at odds with the accepted doctrine of the Catholic church.

Everyone already knew for example that she had spoken out in favour of the clergy being allowed to marry. But in this book we also learn that she wrote to Pope John Paul II, telling him in no uncertain terms that she thought contraception should be allowed.

There are also some colourful disclosures of a slightly crazy young lady who clearly (back in inter-war years) lived life to the full while studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, dancing, flirting and falling in love before in 1929 she took her religious vows and became a nun.

There is of course also a look at the time she spent in the slums of Cairo, Egypt - she went there in 1971, aged 63, and saw the poverty of many living there and decided to stay, which she did for the next 21 years returning to France in 1993.

Little wonder that she has often been referred to as this country's Mother Therese - a comparison she has always shrugged off with the repeated declarations that she is “no saint. "

This book might well leave many thinking otherwise, especially given her own explanations as to why for example, she founded an association for single mothers and how well into her 80s after returning from Cairo supposedly to enjoy retirement in the south of France, she started helping the homeless in the village where she lives.

"I've had a good and happy life, " she says in the book “I can only keep repeating that it's necessary to give others optimism , the will and love.

"Without helping others and without sharing, humanity cannot progress. "

She's also not afraid to admit to faults, claiming that she can be both bad-tempered and vindictive. And according to Duquesne is still very much alert and aware of the impact her words might have on others.

"If you write that I've said I'm no saint, " Duquesne told national radio in relating a conversation he had had with Soeur Emmanuelle during the writing of the book, “People are going to think ‘what humility that woman is showing. '"

Johnny Summerton is a Paris-based broadcaster, writer and journalist. For more on what's making the headlines here in France, log on to his site at


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