Jean Vanier: Kind-hearted humanitarian and founder of disability charity L’Arche

The Independent, by Emily Langer

Jean Vanier came from privilege as a son of the British monarchy’s representative in Canada, the governor general. However, his life would be defined not by the establishment but rather by a restless quest for purpose.

After stints in the British and Canadian navies, he considered becoming a Catholic priest, ultimately deciding he was not meant for the seminary. He found a degree of meaning teaching philosophy in Toronto. But his life took a new direction in the early 1960s, when he travelled to France to see his spiritual mentor, a member of the Dominican order then serving as a chaplain at a home for people with intellectual disabilities.

At the chaplain’s urging, Vanier, then in his mid-thirties, began visiting Frenchasylums. He found what he described as a “chaotic atmosphere of violence and uproar”. Some patients were shackled. Those who were not did little but walk in circles. Especially disturbing to Vanier was their screams.

The scene was typical of mental institutions around the world at the time. Underfunded and largely unregulated, they were used indiscriminately to house people with mental illness, intellectual disabilities, dementia and other conditions or proclivities that made them undesirable to society.

In witnessing their suffering, Vanier discovered a profound affinity with disabled people and saw them, he later wrote, as a “source of life and truth, if we welcome them … and put ourselves at their service”.

He resolved to build a community where people with and without intellectual disabilities could live and work alongside one another as equals. With financial help from his parents and other patrons, Vanier bought what he called a “dilapidated” house in the French town of Trosly-Breuil, northeast of Paris, initially with no electricity or running water. The first two residents, one mentally and physically disabled by meningitis and the other by encephalitis, came from an overcrowded psychiatric hospital.

That house was the first of 154 communities across 38 countries that today form the network known as L’Arche International – referring to the French for Noah’s ark.

Vanier, who has died in Paris aged 90 after developing thyroid cancer, received the Templeton Prize honouring “exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension” in 2015. The prize, bestowed by the US-based John Templeton Foundation, was worth approximately £1.3m.

Michael W Higgins, a biographer of Vanier’s, said in an interview that the Vanier family occupied in Canada a place similar to that of the Kennedys among American Catholics. “The name has an incredible lustre to it,” he said, and yet Vanier “never invoked privileged status or position”.

Vanier began his work just as deinstitutionalisation, which called for patients to be removed from psychiatric hospitals and integrated into the community, began to take hold internationally. Margaret A Nygren, the executive director of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, placed him “at the forefront of a grassroots movement” towards that end.

As Vanier shed the habits of a naval officer to live more collaboratively with other L’Arche residents, he arrived at the fundamental realisation that would inform his mission.

He once told Krista Tippett, host of the radio programme Speaking of Faith: “The balance of our world frequently is seen as a question of power. That if I have more power and more knowledge, more capacity, then I can do more. When you have power, we can very quickly push people down. And this is the history of humanity.”

Although driven by his Catholic faith, Vanier gradually led the L’Arche network into more ecumenical work. Observers described his theology as one of simple, concrete, tender acts: bathing a fellow human being, dining together, offering a reassuring touch.

Other humanitarians approached people with disabilities “either from the philanthropic or the altruistic point of view”, Higgins said, complacent in the assumption that it fell to the powerful to help the powerless. Vanier upended that philosophy “by saying that no, those who have the power – those who are able – need the disabled and the powerless” and that “they give us gifts we couldn’t have otherwise”.

Vanier conceded L’Arche communities were not utopias. One of his earlier core members, as residents with disabilities were known, could not hear or speak and was so unsettled by his new environment that he escaped at night and had to return to a mental institution.

“As we share our lives with the powerless, we are obliged to leave behind our theories about the world, our dreams and our beautiful thoughts about God,” Vanier observed, “to become grounded in a reality that can be quite harsh.”

He found that his work was transformative not only for people with disabilities, but also for their assistants. Assistants often would live in L’Arche communities for a year or two, although some have stayed for decades. According to the organisation, L’Arche communities have 10,000 members worldwide, including core members and assistants.

The intimate and personalised nature of L’Arche communities does not lend itself to the comprehensive tracking of outcomes and benefits, according to Nygren. But she said the organisation is well-regarded – a “very forward-thinking, very innovative” attempt at building community life for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“When those ingrained in a culture of winning and of individual success really meet them, and enter into friendship with them, something amazing and wonderful happens,” Vanier said at a news conference when he received the Templeton Prize. “They too are opened up to love and even to God. They are changed at a very deep level. They are transformed and become more fundamentally human.”

Jean François Antoine Vanier was born on 10 September 1928 in Geneva, where his father Georges was posted with the League of Nations. His mother, the former Pauline Archer, came from a prominent Quebecois family. The couple had five children, including a daughter who became a haematologist and three other sons who became, respectively, a Trappist monk, an abstract painter and a political scientist.

Vanier spent part of his childhood in England and then in France until the perils of the Second World War sent the family back to Canada. At 13, Vanier declared that he wished to return to England and enrol at the Britannia Royal Naval College in Dartmouth, England. The trip would entail braving the U-boats that menaced the Atlantic waters. But Vanier’s father, who had lost a leg during military service in the First World War, agreed.

“I trust you,” Vanier recalled his father saying, according to the Toronto Star – an act he said gave him confidence to last him through each stop in his peripatetic early life.

The war had ended by the time Vanier completed his military training. He commanded an aircraft carrier before leaving the military after a 30-day Ignatian retreat. He told Tippett that navy service had made him “a man who knew how to be efficient and quick”, who “knew how to give commands,” but lacked meaningful relationships in his life before he founded L’Arche. He never married and had no immediate survivors.

After resigning his commission in 1950, Vanier studied at Eau Vive, a contemplative community near Paris, and later lived at a Trappist monastery. He enrolled at the Institut Catholique in Paris, receiving a doctorate in 1962 with a dissertation on Aristotle, and taught Aristotelian ethics at the University of St Michael’s College at the University of Toronto before returning to France to found L’Arche.

“I knew it was an irreversible act,” he told The Herald of Glasgow in 1998. “But I did not know that L’Arche would grow as it has.”

In addition to L’Arche International, Vanier co-founded Faith and Light, a network of support groups for people with intellectual disabilities and their families, in 1971. He wrote more than 30 books, including An Ark for the Poor (1995) and Becoming Human (1998). He was the subject of biographies including The Miracle, the Message, the Story (2006) by Kathryn Spink and Higgins’ Jean Vanier: Logician of the Heart (2016), as well as the documentary film Summer in the Forest (2017), directed by Randall Wright.

Vanier had lived, until several years ago, at the L’Arche home in Trosly-Breuil. The residents there and the disabled everywhere, he said, are “seeking friendship”. He said: “It’s a message for all of us. It’s about all of us.”