Historical Figures

Sister Emmanuelle, "the ragpickers' little sister"

Madeleine Cinquin, who became Sister Emmanuelle (1908 – 2008), was a French nun, teacher and writer, known and popular for her humanitarian commitments.


Born in Brussels on November 16, 1908, Madeleine Cinquin is one of the three children of a wealthy Franco-Belgian couple, who made their fortune in lingerie. She spent her early years between Brussels, London and Paris. On September 6, 1914, his father drowned before his eyes in Ostend, in the North Sea. Madeleine, who was only six years old at the time, was deeply traumatized by this tragedy and approached religion. Later, she will date the origin of her vocation to this event.

A few years later, the young girl met the superior of Notre-Dame de Sion, in London, who reinforced her desire to become a nun. On May 6, 1929, she entered the congregation of Notre-Dame de Sion as a postulant, where she studied philosophical and religious sciences. On May 10, 1931, taking her vows, she chose the name of Sister Emmanuelle.

Teacher for wealthy young girls

The nun is sent on a mission as a teacher in a school for girls from poor neighborhoods in Istanbul (Turkey) . Having impressed the director of the college during a conference on Suleiman the Magnificent, she was assigned to the Lycée Notre-Dame de Sion, where she taught wealthy young girls.

In 1954, she was sent to Tunis (Tunisia) where she taught French girls, but this new assignment did not please her. She finds young girls superficial, especially in the context of decolonization of Tunisia and, after several years, her superiors decide to move her. After a degree in literature in Paris, she was assigned again to Istanbul in 1959, then to Egypt in 1964. Again, her students seemed to her to be frivolous and little concerned with poverty, and Sister Emmanuelle chose to occupy herself instead. girls from the disadvantaged neighborhood of Bacos.

The slum of Ezbet-El-Nakhl

In 1971, at the age of 63, the nun wanted to take care of lepers in Cairo but had to give it up because of administrative problems. Wishing to share her life with most people, she obtained permission from her congregation to settle in Ezbet-El-Nakhl, a slum in Cairo (Egypt). In this predominantly Coptic Christian community, she collaborates with local churches and launches many social projects, particularly in the fields of health and education. In 1976, she was joined by Sister Sarah, superior of the Coptic-Orthodox congregation of the Daughters of Mary of Béni-Souef, who shared her hut. In 1977, she recounted her experience in a first book, Chiffonnière avec les chiffonniers.

In 1978, Sister Sarah and Sister Emmanuelle collected funds in the United States with which they created the Salam Center, offering dispensaries, schools, kindergartens and training. In 1980, Sister Emmanuelle created the association “Friends of Sister Emmanuelle” (which later became Asmae), a secular association. In 1982, she left Ezbet-Al-Nakhl in the hands of nuns from the order of the Daughters of Saint Mary and left to take care of the ragpickers of Mokattam. Raising funds and striving to mobilize the authorities, she embarked on projects to build shelters, schools, dispensaries, and to create water and electricity networks.

In 1991, Sister Emmanuelle received Egyptian nationality as a reward for her works, on the occasion of the diamond wedding anniversary of her religious vows. Two years later, her congregation asked her to return to France and Sister Emmanuelle left Sister Sarah to take care of the community of Mokattam. In France, the nun wrote several books, intervened in high schools, gave conferences and got involved in associations. She was named Commander of the Legion of Honor on January 1, 2002, Grand Officer on July 31, 2008.

Sister Emmanuelle died on October 20, 2008, at the age of 99.