Joseph Wresinski was born to immigrant parents in a poor neighbourhood of Angers, France. He grew up in a family which suffered from chronic poverty and social exclusion.
In 1946, he was ordained as a priest and served in industrial and rural parishes where, right from the beginning, he related to the most deprived families.
In 1956, he was assigned chaplain to 250 families in a emergency housing camp in Noisy-le-Grand, near Paris. The families lived in quonset (nissan) huts erected in a muddy field. He said about his years in Noisy-le-Grand: "The families in that camp have inspired everything I have undertaken for their liberation. They took hold of me, they lived within me, they carried me forward, they pushed me to found the Movement with them."
In 1957, Joseph Wresinski and the families of the camp founded the first association which was later to become ATD Fourth World. Responding to the demands of the families and working with them, the soup kitchen and the distribution of old clothes were replaced with a library, kindergarden, chapel and workshop. Volunteers came to join the action and a Research Institute on extreme poverty was created to bring together researchers from different countries and disciplines.
Since its beginning the development of ATD Fourth World was inspired by Joseph Wresinski’s own experience as a child in a poverty-stricken family and by his daily contacts with families in extreme poverty and members of the Movement’s Volunteer Corps.
Joseph Wresinski’s firm purpose was to unite all sections of society around the poorest. With this aim he met leaders of state, churches and international bodies from all over the world. He believed that every man or woman he met represented a chance for the poorest and he was determined that ATD Fourth World would remain open to people of all cultures, faiths and races.
His appointment to France’s Economic and Social Council in 1979 was a significant step in his quest for official representation of people in extreme poverty. With the publication of the Wresinski Report in 1987, he succeeded in gaining recognition of people in poverty as partners in society.
On 17th October 1987, in the presence of 100,000 people from every social background and continent, Joseph Wresinski unveiled a commemorative stone in the Trocadero Human Rights Plaza in Paris. On this marble his call is engraved: "Wherever men and women are condemned to live in poverty, human rights are violated. To come together to ensure that these rights be respected is our solemn duty."
Since then the commemorative stone has become a rallying point for people from all walks of life. They gather to bear witness to the poorest and to make a commitment to join forces with them in abolishing poverty and social exclusion.
October 17th was declared "International Day for the Eradication of Poverty" by the United Nations in 1992. In several countries, on the 17th of each month, people gather for a short commemoration in honour of people who suffer from extreme poverty, and to renew their commitment to fight alongside them.