MUMBAI, India – A French priest who has worked with the most destitute in India has been made an officer of the Legion d’Honneur, the highest civilian award of France.

92-year-old Father Franois Laborde is the founder of Howrah South Point, which works for the integrated growth of the specially-abled children, the sick and destitute by means of various rehabilitation specialized education, preventive and curative health activities and by educational programs.

Laborde had already been awarded the lower rank of the award – the Chevalier – which was conferred on him by the late French President François Mitterand in 1988.

“He is working for these specially-abled and destitute children for 60 years. The way he still works even at this age, he is an inspiration for us,” said Alexandre Ziegler, the French Ambassador to India.

“With the help of many dedicated men and women, doctors, volunteers, from India, France, Germany and Switzerland, thousands of children have gained access to health treatments and education through HSP,” Ziegler said.

“Father Laborde likes to say that HSP is not his sole work but that the association has developed thanks to the involvement of its workers in all sectors,” the ambassador continued.

“But even if this outstanding work is the result of the wonderful collective involvement of so many, one had to recognize Father Laborde’s vision, relentless effort and dedication in perpetuating what is also a core value of the ‘secular’ French Republic: Fraternity – la fraternité!” Ziegler said.

During the Feb. 6 ceremony, Father Laurent Bissara,  priest of the Paris Foreign Missions Society serving in India, praised Laborde.

“This cry of the poorest rang out and urged him to fight for justice, until very soon, nearly by accident – or should I say Providence –he was offered to live in a small room in the slum of Pilkhana. He did not dare to refuse. There, with the help of many ordinary people, he started the adventure of the association of Seva Sangh Samiti,” Bissara said.

Seva Sangh Samiti was the charity Laborde in 1966 in the Pikhana slum of the city of Howrah, a major transport hub in the state of West Bengal.

The city is located in the Archdiocese of Kolkata, formerly Calcutta, where Mother Teresa began her own ministry to “the poorest of the poor.”

Since its founding, Seva Sangh Samiti has always tried to enhance the image the slum’s inhabitants have of themselves and to underline the real values they cherish in their day to day life, friendship, courage, hospitality, family ties, fighting the worst that one can encounter.

The priest founded the Howrah South Point home for special needs children in 1976.

“Father Laborde’s enterprise has grown like a banyan tree. It has stood tall under the scorching sun, provided shade to weary travelers and branched out to bring more and more people under its care. It almost finds reflection in the heavily wrinkled face of Father Laborde as he goes about comforting children,” a Howrah South Point staff member told The Times of India.

“Father Labrode is a diocesan priest of the Archdiocese of Kolkata. He is a simple, humble, down to earth priest,” said Father Dominic Gomes, the vicar general of the archdiocese.

He told Crux the priest has worked to promote the interests of India’s marginalized tribal community and has bought land to build homes for the poor.

“He is living and eating with the poor, loves the downtrodden people, the poorest of the poor. He was a friend of Mother Teresa,” the priest told Crux.

Labrode’s story was one of the chief inspirations for City of Joy, a 1985 novel by Dominique Lapierre. The book was later adapted into a 1992 movie starring Patrick Swayze.

Father Reginald Fernandes, the director of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Kolkata, told Crux Labrode is a “saintly and holy priest.”

“Father Labrode rightly deserves this honor. Father Labrode has always shunned publicity, and this award is an acknowledgement of his selfless service for the poor, especially the special needs children,” Fernandes said.

The priest said he lived and worked with Labrode in the Howrah slums from 1977-1979.

“He is simple and has untiring loves to serve the poor,” he said.

During the award ceremony, Laborde said he was dedicating the award to the children for whom he works.

“Money is not everything. People should stop running after profit, neglecting the underprivileged, the sick, and the disabled, and widening the gap between the rich and the poor. What life did you live if you didn’t live for others?” Laborde asked.

Although born in France, the priest has been given Indian citizenship.