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The name Amicie Piou probably means very little to Salvationists in the United Kingdom Territory. It may well not mean very much more to French Salvationists, but Amicie Piou played an important part in the history of one of The Salvation Army’s great institutions in Paris. Amicie was born in 1847 into a middle upper-class family. Her father was a magistrate and one of the founders of the concept of Christian democracy.
At the age of 16 Amicie left home, married Jules Lebaudy and moved to Paris. Her husband made a fortune on the Paris Stock Exchange and his financial success led Amicie to take her place in Parisian society, where she held court among the great Catholic families. However, it did not take long for Amicie to realise that her husband was miserly and that his avarice had led him into a life of financial impropriety. He used his financial acumen to hasten a bank’s crash in 1881, and pocketed hundreds of millions of francs when many small investors ill-advisedly sold their shares for a fraction of their original value. Madame Lebaudy found it extremely difficult to accept her husband’s business dealings. Her conscience pricked her while he squandered the wealth he had accumulated. She was distraught when one day she heard him say to their son Max, as he showed him a gold coin: ‘This is the only god to whom we should sacrifice everything! Everything else is just a joke!’
Eventually Amicie’s husband died, leaving her a fortune of more than 140 million francs, but as far as she was concerned the money was tainted. Saddened and shamed by her husband’s financial chicanery, she decided to devote the revenue from her fortune to social work. But Amicie was shunned by the members of the social milieu she had become accustomed to, so she took a small, two-roomed apartment in the Saint Lazare area of Paris, where everyone took her for a poor person. Determined to make amends for her husband’s despicable dealings, she decided to fund philanthropic projects. To help her in this she established a working men’s hostel association, Le Groupe des Maisons Ouvrières, who in 1910 built L’Hôtel Populaire pour Célibataires Hommes (The Hostel for Single Men) at 94 Rue de Charonne in Paris. This was the first hostel of its kind to be built in France. Occupying a large piece of land covering nearly an acre in the industrial area of Faubourg Saint-Antoine in the east of Paris, it was ideally situated for the programme she had in mind. In 1914, with the arrival of the First World War, L’Hôtel Populaire was emptied of its residents by the mobilisation and the immense property found a new vocation as a war hospital.
During the latter years of her life Amicie wished to remain anonymous. Only the president of Le Groupe des Maisons Ouvrières dealt with her directly, receiving the sums necessary for the purchase of land and the construction work. But after her death in 1917, full recognition of her generosity was accorded when Le Groupe des Maisons Ouvrières became Le Fondation de Madame Jules Lebaudy. After the war, in 1919 the Ministry of Pensions set up offices in the building but moved out a short time later. The magnificent building, constructed in line with a style of architecture that Madame Lebaudy had discovered on a visit to America, stayed sadly empty.