Obituary: Jean Vanier, humanitarian, founder of L’Arche charity and Faith and Light

Jean Vanier poses for a photograph after receiving the Templeton Prize at St Martins-in-the-Fields church in London. Picture: AP
Jean Vanier poses for a photograph after receiving the Templeton Prize at St Martins-in-the-Fields church in London. Picture: AP
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Jean Vanier, humanitarian. Born: 10 September, 1928 in Geneva, Switzerland. Died: May 7, 2019 in Paris, aged 90

Jean Vanier, a Canadian Catholic whose charity work helped improve conditions for the developmentally disabled in multiple countries over the past half-century, has died at the age of 90.

A charity he founded, L’Arche, said Vanier died after suffering from thyroid cancer.

Pope Francis praised Vanier as a man who spent his life understanding the mystery of suffering, illness and death, “the mystery of those who are despised and thrown away in the world”.

Francis said he had called Vanier a week ago after learning he was close to death.

“I wanted to express my gratitude for this witness,” Francis said. “Thanks to him, and to God for having given us this man with a great witness.”

Jean Vanier was born on 10 September, 1928, the fourth of five children. His parents, Major General Georges Vanier and Pauline Archer Vanier were both Canadian.

In 1942, aged 13, he enrolled at Dartmouth Naval College in England. Major General Vanier was Canada’s ambassador in Paris in 1945 and his mother a delegate of the Red Cross. Jean Vanier participated in the reception of concentration camp survivors in the French capital – an experience that marked him for life.

He transferred to the Royal Canadian Navy in 1949 before resigning his commission a year later to, in his words “follow Jesus and work for peace”.

In 1962 he obtained his doctorate in philosophy and began teaching at St Michael’s College in Toronto.

But in 1964 he chanced upon the world of disability durign a visit to a psychiatric hospital that moved him profoundly: “I visited homes and discovered a world of vast suffering that I had been totally ignorant of. In the navy, I had been in a world of efficiency; through my studies, I was in the world of intellect. And then I found myself faced by a world of ‘the cry’ and that has turned my life upside down.”

In August of that year he invited two people with intellectual disabilities to live with him in a small house in Tosly-Breuil which he called L’Arch – meaing The Ark. They shared a simple daily life, made up of mutual help and friendship – an alternative living environment where those with developmental disabilities could be full-fledged participants in the community instead of patients.

Vanier later recalled: “What they really wanted was to have a friend. They didn’t care about my knowledge or capacity to do things, but about my heart and my being.”

The house quickly became too small to welcome both volunteers and disabled people and other L’Arche homes started up in France and spread across the world.

The charity now has communities in 38 countries that are home to thousands of people both with and without disabilities

“He saw people locked up, and he decided to make a gesture, inspired by the Bible,” said Pierre Jacquand, who leads L’Arche’s facilities in France. “He felt a calling to defend the most marginalised.”

“He gave them a voice,” Jacquand said, adding that over time, his work helped inspire broader change in how France addresses the needs of those with developmental disorders including Down syndrome and autism spectrum disorders.

In 1971 Vanier also founded – with Marie Hélène-Matthieu – Faith and Light, an organisation bringing together, on a monthly basis, people with intellectual disabilites, their families and friends. Today there are more than 1,450 such groups in 85 countries

He also travelled the world to encourage dialogue across religions, and was awarded the 2015 Templeton Prize for spiritual work, as well as France’s Legion d’honneur. In 1998 he addressed both the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches in Geneva and, at the invitation of Achbishop of Canterbury George Carey, the Anglican bishops at the Lambeth Conference.

He was the subject of a documentary shown at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival called Jean Vanier, the Sacrament of Tenderness”

Vanier handed over leadership of L’Arche decades ago but continued to live in the first community centre he founded north of Paris.

He had no direct descendants but left a legacy in many countries, and “his family is everywhere now,” Jacquand said.