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Jean Vanier

Jean Vanier by Julie Lonneman

Artwork Narrative:

In 1964, Jean Vanier became aware of the plight of people who are institutionalized because of developmental disabilities. He felt called to invite two men to leave the institutions where they resided and to live with him in Trosly-Breuil, France. This was the beginning of l'Arche, which today consists of 130 homes worldwide where people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them live and work together, celebrating each person’s unique value and gifts.

"Community is not built upon heroic actions but rather upon the love shown in the little things of daily life."
—Jean Vanier Canada/France, 1928-

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For nearly four decades, Jean Vanier has traveled the world fashioning a network of homes where people with developmental disabilities, volunteers and a sprinkling of staff live together in community. Those we lock away and think worthless, he says, have the power to teach and even to heal us. We are all “broken” in some way, he believes. “When you start living with people with disabilities”, he says, “you begin to discover a whole lot of things about yourself.” He learned that to “be human is to be bonded together, each with our own weaknesses and strengths, because we need each other.” Tall and stooped, Vanier radiates the strength of a man who has fought his own inner battles and surfaced with peace.

Jean Vanier was born on September 10, 1928, in Geneva, Switzerland, where his father, General Georges Vanier, was on a diplomatic mission. Most of his early schooling was in England where he lived until World War II when his parents sent him and his four brothers and one sister back to Canada.

Two years later, the young Jean decided to enter the Royal Naval College in England. Too young to become a soldier, he assisted his mother in her Red Cross work in Paris after the liberation, helping with those returning from the concentration camps. In 1945, Jean received his officer’s commission and began his naval career.

Despite the promising career that lay in front of him, he was more and more drawn into prayer and reflection on what might be God’s call for him. In 1950, he resigned from the Navy to study philosophy and theology at the Institut Catholique in Paris. It was there where he met Father Thomas Philippe, a Dominican priest and professor who was to become Jean’s spiritual mentor and friend.

In 1963, having published his doctoral thesis on Aristotle, he returned to Canada to teach at the University of Toronto. Again, he decided against the security of a career and left job and homeland to join Father Thomas Philippe who had become chaplain to a small institution for men with developmental disabilities, the Val Fleury, in Trosly-Breuil. In 1964 Jean decided to settle in Trosly to live with people with an intellectual disability. He bought a small house and named it “l’Arche”, the French word for Noah’s Ark.

Though heavily involved in the rapidly growing community, Jean began to give conferences and retreats around the world. In 1969, following a retreat he gave in Ontario, the first community of l’Arche in North America was founded. The next year, again after a visit by Jean, the first l’Arche community in India was founded. In 1968 Jean Vanier also co-founded Faith and Sharing. In these communities, families who have a member with a disability and their friends meet once a month for prayer and mutual support and celebration. Three years later, they organized a pilgrimage of 12,000 people with developmental disabilities, their friends and families to Lourdes which led to the co-founding of Faith and Light. This sister pilgrimage movement unites people with an intellectual disability and their family members and friends for regular gatherings and periodic pilgrimages of friendship, prayer and celebration. In the early 1990s, Jean Vanier founded Intercordia, which provides university students with an accredited cross-cultural experience in social education and personal growth among poor or marginalized people in the developing world.

l’Arche was spreading rapidly, and aware that it was important to call forth others who could lead, Jean handed over the leadership of the International Federation of l’Arche communities to the first International Coordinator in 1981. Jean Vanier continued to sit as Founder on the International Council of l’Arche. He also continued to travel a great deal encouraging l’Arche communities and giving spiritual accompaniment and guidance to the many people who come to him from within and beyond l’Arche.

Jean Vanier has received numerous awards, among which are the French Legion of Honour, Companion of the Order of Canada, the Rabbi Gunther Plaut Humanitarian Award 2001 and the Chicago Catholic Theological Union “Blessed are the Peacemakers” award, 2006.

Jean Vanier continues to travel the world to give retreats and conferences; the 1998 CBC Massey Lectures are just one prominent example. In 2006 he traveled, among other areas, to Africa, Indonesia and the USA. He also continues to write; his books have been translated into 29 languages. Jean continues to live in the first l’Arche community in Trosly-Breuil, France.

—Excerpts from “Jean Vanier, Founder of L’Arche”, Ce site appartient à l'Arche Internationale: Association loi 1901, Siège social: 10, rue Fenoux, Paris, France