There’s a documentary from the 1970s in which a BBC journalist takes a film crew to Little Ewell, the first l’Arche community in England, to interview Thérèse Vanier, its director. The journalist is trying to plumb the concept of a faith-based community, in which the mentally disabled live in harmony with volunteers or “assistants,” not as charges under care, but as equal participants.
Gently, Dr. Vanier, a tall, elegant woman with a silver helmet of hair who resembles International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde, explains that the weaker members of society have a great deal to give, but we rarely give them the chance because they are so often pushed to the fringes.
“Are there spiritual benefits that I, as an outsider, am excluded [from], because I am not in contact with the mentally handicapped?” the journalist asks.
Regarding him patiently, Dr. Vanier delicately suggests that he might accrue some spiritual benefits by looking “at the weak and apparently foolish,” and asking, “is there something there I can learn? Is there something in these people that is going to bring me closer to God?”
That quest, expressed simply but compellingly, is a key to Dr. Vanier’s life.
The only daughter of former governor-general Georges Vanier, she was a decorated veteran of the Second World War, a distinguished hematologist at London’s St. Thomas’ Hospital, a pioneer of palliative medicine with her friend the late Dame Cicely Saunders at St. Christopher’s Hospice, an eloquently bilingual speaker and lecturer and a devout Catholic.
She is even more remarkable for the ecumenical way she lived her life in friendship and spirituality among two of the most marginalized groups in contemporary society: the terminally ill and the intellectually disabled.
“Ti – we used to call her Ti, for Thérèse – woman of few words, great love,” her brother Jean remembered in his eulogy after her death at 91 on June 16.
But beneath her competence and her love and her great caring, he said, “there was a thirst,” to “bring people together in love.”
In trying to slake that longing, she recognized that the weakest among us and those who are terminally ill will “lead us to unity,” if “we listen to God.”
That ecumenical vision was heralded earlier this month at Canterbury Cathedral during a requiem in her memory, possibly the first time the mass has been celebrated there since the Reformation in the 16th century.
Thérèse Marie Chérisy Vanier was born in Camberley, Surrey, on Feb. 27, 1923. Her father, Georges, a decorated soldier who had lost a leg fighting in the trenches during the First World War, trained as a lawyer before joining the Canadian Foreign Service; her mother, Pauline Archer, was the daughter of a judge in the Quebec Superior Court.
Because of her father’s peripatetic postings, Thérèse grew up in Canada, England and France, often far away from her parents and siblings.
She spent her early years being educated by the Holy Child nuns in central London and then moved to Mayfield School in Sussex, while her father rose through the diplomatic ranks.
Prime Minister Mackenzie King posted Mr. Vanier to Paris as chef de mission in 1938. During the fall of France, in June, 1940, the family made a dangerous escape across the Channel to England.
After surviving several months in London during the Blitz, Pauline Vanier and the children, which then included a teenaged Thérèse and three younger brothers, sailed the treacherous Atlantic convoy route back to Canada; Mr. Vanier stayed behind as the Canadian representative to the Free French, among other governments in exile.
In 1942, Thérèse Vanier joined the British Mechanised Transport Corps. No stranger to danger at 19, she made her way back to England, sailing once again in a convoy, during the treacherous Battle of the Atlantic, joined a Free French contingent near Worcester and then switched to the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWACS), after they too made it across the Atlantic.
She eventually rose to the rank of captain.