Engagement and Love: Madeleine Delbrêl’s Mission to Marxists and the “Ordinary People of the Streets”

In 1933, a 29-year-old French social worker moved to a communist suburb southeast of Paris to begin a remarkable undertaking.

Madeleine Delbrêl and the women who joined her would live Gospel-infused lives in a working-class city dominated by Marxist ideology. Madeleine’s life witnesses to the grace God can grant when souls commit themselves to love in the most challenging places of the world. 

Madeleine Delbrêl understood the pain of life without God. A bright and gifted girl, Madeleine embraced her father’s vocal atheism as a teen, studying art and philosophy at the Sorbonne and writing poetry that expressed the intensity of her preoccupation with death.

But the year Madeleine turned twenty, her life was transformed by Christ. 

“God found me,” she would later say. She’d encountered his presence in Christian friends whose lives contradicted the notion that life is absurd. “My intellectual and religious search ended in a radical conversion,” she wrote.

Madeleine embraced the Catholic faith and began passionately living for the God who had found her. Her life would become one that contradicts atheist ideology with the love of the Cross. At the end of her life, her writing still glowed with the faith of a soul “bedazzled” by God.

Published after her death, We, the Ordinary People of the Streets puts us in contact with a woman who has much to teach us about loving God and neighbor, especially when the “neighbor” opposes our faith.

Like saint Thérèse of Lisieux, Madeleine found that in surrendering without resistance to all the “tiny circumstances of life,” we are “wonderfully liberated from ourselves.”

In 1933, when a parish in Ivry-sur-Siene offered Madeleine and two friends a home, they moved to the “Red Belt” and determined, through prayer and hospitality, to bring Christ’s love to the communists by living among them and meeting their needs. Charles F. Mann’s Madeleine Delbrêl: A Life Beyond Boundaries reveals a woman brimming with life: comic, compassionate and deeply contemplative.

In time, Madeleine’s intimate knowledge of her working class neighbors would enable her to be a powerful advocate for them.

“There are thousands of men and women who work in front of the same machine on their feet for years on end,” she would write in 1950, “and since they’re supposed to be used to it, we get used to thinking that they are.”

Certain forms of labor kill violently, others slowly. There are ovens that explode, machines that amputate, and presses that crush. Some industries eat away at the lungs, others weaken the blood….There are workers whose hands get burnt because it is not yet economical to replace these workers with machines.

She wrote as well of the lack of educational opportunity offered working class children, of the destruction of families forced to separate to find employment, of the elderly helpless against the ravages of time, of cramped housing.

Madeleine insisted that these issues did not belong to the laborers alone.

She urged church leaders and middle class Christians to understand that they had a role in relieving misery and opposing systematic injustice.

Yet Madeleine was no ideological activist.

She understood the pain at the heart of atheism, and she had genuine compassion for the communists among whom she lived and worked.

“The absence of God is worse than all hardships put together,” she said. Her home offered conversation and shelter to lonely souls and anyone in need.

Hans urs von Balthasar saw Madeleine as “a model for Christian engagement in the world.” In his preface to We the Ordinary People of the Streets, he states that:

identifying herself with communists in their dedication to fight against injustice and living among them in profound friendship and community, she was exquisitely clear about the deficiencies of their ideological program.

Engaging the “Marxist city” wasn’t easy. 

“Christians suffered genuine public oppression from city hall,” Madeleine would later recount. “In the streets, they were mocked by children, and priests had stones thrown at them.” An organization called Sans Dieu (Godless) propagandized against the Christians at official meetings. Ivry Christians responded in turn with a “cold war” against businesses and some professionals, taking refuge in isolation from their opponents rather than outreach to them.

But the tide turned when Communist Party leader Maurice Thorez invited all Ivry organizations, irrespective of ideology, to attend a  committee meeting that would address the city’s unemployment crisis.

The priests in Ivry asked all Catholic organizations in the area to attend. Over forty Christians came, and along with them, the witness of Christ to the communists. “It was only later that I was able to appreciate a far more significant fact about this event,” Madeleine would reflect:

It was an encounter between the Church and nonbelievers within the city.

In 1939, when the French declared war against Germany, Madeleine and her friends were required to do social work for the government.

Madeleine Delbrêl was appointed Minister of Social Services and Minister of National Public Assistance.

She coordinated Ivry’s health and social programs, created responsive services for emergency shelter, food, and clothing and organized training for social workers engaged in connecting people to needed resources.

“Despite the mistrust that such a situation might have entailed,” writes Father Jacques Loew in his introduction to We, the Ordinary People of the Streets, “Madeleine was able to create in the departments in which she worked an atmosphere of honest collaboration and mutual trust.” 

After the war Madeleine was asked to continue her work at Ivry’s City Hall, run by the French Communist Party. A committee was again formed, and Madeleine saw the opportunity as “a second ‘free’ encounter between the Church and the people within the city.”

While she worked to alleviate the suffering of Ivry’s people (they endured two bombings after D-Day) Madeleine also wrote prolifically. Poetry and reflections flowed from her pen, but so did letters to church officials and political leaders. Her yearnings for justice were far from sentimental: she was a powerhouse of love in action.

Finally, in response to the pleas of friends concerned for her health, Madeleine concluded her life of active social work and devoted herself specifically to writing and to the women who lived in her “core group” communities in the poorest areas of France.

Much of Madeleine Delbrêl’s work remains untranslated into English but We, the Ordinary People of the Streets contains an introduction about her life followed by stirring meditations on holy living for ordinary people in ordinary homes, ordinary offices, ordinary vocations of all kinds. Her words encourage us to remember “the little ones,” in whom we encounter Christ.

“We encounter Christ in all these ‘little ones’ who are his own: the ones who suffer in body, the ones who are bored, the ones who are troubled, the ones who are in need,” she writes.

“We encounter Christ rejected, in the sin that wears a thousand faces. How could we possibly have the heart to mock these people or to hate them, this multitude of sinners with whom we rub shoulders?”

That’s a humbling question for Christians in this contentious time.

Like the Ivry Christians in their time of opposition, we are tempted today to isolate ourselves from the hurting world, to mock or belittle ideas put forth by opponents who don’t understand our faith. We’re wounded by their unfair caricatures and we fear their successes in the culture.

But if we don’t love our atheist neighbors as we love ourselves, why would they ever consider Christ?

Madeleine’s life suggests we sometimes fight the wrong battle.

“Serve one another through love,” St. Paul instructed the early Christians (Galatians 5:13):

For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. But if you go on biting and devouring one another, beware that you are not consumed by one another.

Perhaps it’s time to look at the world with Madeleine’s lens of love and engagement.

“We, the ordinary people of the streets,” she declares, “believe with all our might that this street, this world, where God has placed us, is our place of holiness.”

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Madeleine Delbrêl has been called a French Dorothy Day. If you enjoyed this post you might also like Toward Authenticity in the Cultural Moment: Three Lessons from Dorothy Day.

Madeleine’s unique abilities and capacity for friendship are clearly gifts from God. Her holiness was officially recognized by the Catholic Church when she was designated a “Servant of God” in 2018. The cause for her canonization is underway.

Madeline’s house is being renovated! This video is in French (naturally) but the content speaks for itself.

Photo by Pascal Bernardon on Unsplash.