Jean Vanier death: Founder of learning disability charity L’Arche dies, aged 90

Pope Francis praises teacher and moral leader as a 'great witness' to faith and love

Wednesday 08 May 2019 15:33
Jean Vanier created an international movement to help people with developmental disabilities
Jean Vanier created an international movement to help people with developmental disabilities

Jean Vanier, who dedicated his life to improving conditions for people on the margins and founded two worldwide organisations for those with developmental disabilities, has died in Paris, aged 90.

L’Arche, one of the international organisations he established, said the cause was thyroid cancer.

Mr Vanier was a teacher and moral leader who converted his desire to help people into a worldwide movement.

The turning point in his life came in 1963, with his first visit to an institution for people with intellectual disabilities. He was so moved by their pleas for help that he bought a house and invited two male residents to live with him. It was the beginning of L’Arche. He helped found a similar group, Faith and Light, a few years later.

Today L’Arche, rooted in the Roman Catholic Church, has 154 communities in 38 countries; Faith and Light has 1,500 communities in 83 countries. Through both organisations, people with and without intellectual disabilities live together in a community where they can feel they belong. His work served as a model for several other organisations.

“He was one of the great saints of our time,” the reverend James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor-at-large of America, a magazine of Catholic thought, said.

“Of all the people in our time who minister to people on the margins, I would say he and Mother Teresa were the avatars for Catholics,” Rev Martin said. “Jean Vanier showed us the great strength of tenderness and vulnerability and weakness, which is Christ’s message.”

Pope Francis, speaking to reporters on a plane to Rome after visiting North Macedonia, said he called Mr Vanier last week, Vatican News reported. The two met in 2014.

“Simply put,” the Pontiff said, “I want to thank him, and thank God for having given us this man with such a great witness” to faith and love."

Mr Vanier wrote more than 30 books, including An Ark for the Poor (1995) and Becoming Human (1998). Several biographies have been written about him, and in 2017 he was the subject of Summer in the Forest, a documentary film by Randall Wright.

Pope John Paul II awarded Vanier the Paul VI prize in 1997. In 2015, he received the prestigious Templeton Prize, then worth $1.7m (£1.3m), given for “affirming life’s spiritual dimension.”

Jean François Antoine Vanier was born 10 September 1928, in Geneva, where his father, Georges Vanier, a much-decorated Canadian military hero, was posted with the League of Nations. His mother, Pauline (Archer) Vanier, came from a prominent Quebecois family. Georges Vanier, a major general, became Canada’s first ambassador to France and served as governor general of Canada from 1959 to 1967.

The family was living in France when World War II began and forced to evacuate by ship to Britain as the Germans advanced. They later returned to Canada.

At 13, Jean persuaded his parents to let him move to England to study at the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth. By the time he finished his training the war had ended, although he spent time with both the British Royal Navy and the Royal Canadian Navy.

In 1945, after the liberation of Paris, he spent part of a military leave at the Gare d’Orsay in Paris helping the Canadian Red Cross receive survivors of concentration camps.

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“I’ll never forget the men and women who arrived off the trains — like skeletons, still in the blue-and-white-striped uniforms,” he told The Economist in 2014, recalling “their faces tortured with fear and anguish.”

He added: “That, and the dropping of the atom bombs, strengthened a feeling in me that the navy was no longer the place for me; that I wanted to devote myself to works of peace."

He resigned his commission in 1950. He never married and had no immediate survivors.

Though Mr Vanier assumed he would become a priest, he never did. He spent several years living in a contemplative community near Paris, combining prayer with manual work and the study of philosophy. He received a doctorate from the Catholic University of Paris in 1962. He taught philosophy for a time at the University of Toronto but was still seeking a deeper meaning in life when he travelled back to France in 1963.

There, he was invited to visit an institution for mentally disabled men. It was a noisy, depressing and violent place, but Vanier found it beautiful and mysterious.

“This is my experience of having been in many dark places — prisons, psychiatric wards, slums, leper colonies,” he told The Economist. “There’s something frightening, but also something beautiful, a sense of wonderment.”

The men asked him if he would visit them again.

“Behind those words,” he said, “I sensed a great cry: ‘Why have I been abandoned? Why am I not with my brothers and sisters, who are married and living in nice houses? Do you love me?’ A great thirst for friendship.”

Mr Vanier studied how people with mental disabilities were being treated throughout the world and resolved to create a community where they could live with one another with dignity.

He bought a dilapidated house in the French town of Trosly-Breuil, about 65 miles northeast of Paris, and invited two men, whom he identified only as Raphaël and Philippe, to live with him. Raphaël, who had meningitis as a child, could speak only about 20 words. Philippe, who had encephalitis, talked over and over about the same things. Both were also physically disabled.

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By living with them, Mr Vanier said, he began to understand what it meant to be human. “Before meeting them, my life had been governed largely from my head and my sense of duty,” he said. “They brought out the child in me. I began to live from my heart.”

The idea of L’Arche — or Ark, where Noah rescued animals two by two — was born. It grew throughout France and spread to other continents.

On receiving the Templeton Prize, Mr Vanier spoke of the effect people with disabilities can have on others when they meet.

“When those ingrained in a culture of winning and of individual success really meet them,” he said, “and enter into friendship with them, something amazing and wonderful happens.

“They are changed at a very deep level,” he said. “They are transformed and become more fundamentally human.”

The New York Times

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