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March 2008. Jean Vanier, 79, sits outside library of L'Arche in Trosly-Breuil, France. Photo by Ian Brown / The Globe and MailIan Brown/The Globe and Mail

I once asked Jean Vanier, the world’s most radical philosopher of disability for the past 60 years, how he came to create L’Arche, the network of communities for the intellectually disabled that today exists in 37 countries around the world. This was many years after the founding of the organization in Trosly-Breuil, the small town 90 kilometres northeast of Paris where L’Arche still maintains its headquarters, where Mr. Vanier bought the first L’Arche home in 1964 and still lived as a member of the community until his death Tuesday morning in Paris, at the age of 90, from heart failure and other complications.

Acquiring the tiny stone house was a big risk. Mr. Vanier had zero formal training in caring for the disabled, but planned to share the home with two intellectually delayed men in their 40s, Philippe Seux and Raphaël Simi. Neither could speak, and the house had rudimentary plumbing and electricity. “What on earth were you thinking?” I asked the founder.

“I thought we could have fun,” Mr. Vanier said with a smile, tilting his giant, sculpture-like head on his 6-foot-4 frame and opening his huge hands in a familiar gesture of helplessness.

“Fun?” I said, still incredulous. “With two disabled, speechless men? How did you plan to do that?”

Jean Vanier's comfort and joy: 'What we have to do is find the places of hope'

“Well,” Mr. Vanier said, shrugging again, “I had a little Citroën, one of those little two-seaters with a back bench. I thought we could drive around the countryside. And when we weren’t doing that, we could cook our food and eat.”

Mr. Vanier’s talent for staying calm while taking risks eventually resulted in the global miracle L’Arche is today – 152 communities of the intellectually disabled (from India and France to Kenya and Canada), as well as an even larger chain of Faith and Light support communities in 83 countries, all serving some 5,000 disabled core members. He wrote 30 books, won countless honours (a perennial nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, he was named a Companion of the Order of Canada and awarded France’s Legion of Honour, and the Templeton Prize, among many others) and was a friend and inspiration to thousands of parents, colleagues and L’Arche residents all over the world.

His most significant accomplishment, however, was to establish the unique value of an intellectually disabled life. In the laboratories of human transformation known as L’Arche houses, where residents live on equal footing and status with the assistants who help them, and where everyone sits down to at least one meal a day around a common table – a simple rite that defines the entire project – Mr. Vanier demonstrated that the able-bodied need the fragility of the intellectually disabled as much as, and probably more than, they need us.

“It is not just a question of performing good deeds for those who are excluded,” Mr. Vanier wrote in Becoming Human, his biggest bestseller, based on his 1998 Massey Lectures, “but of being open and vulnerable to them in order to receive the life that they can offer; it is to become their friends. If we start to include the disadvantaged in our lives and enter into heartfelt relationships with them, they will change things in us. … They will then start to affect our human organizations, revealing new ways of being and walking together.” In the long, bleak history of human disability, mankind’s most disenfranchised human beings suddenly had demonstrable value, Mr. Vanier declared. They taught him “to recognize and accept my own weaknesses and vulnerability. I no longer have to pretend I am strong and clever or better than others. I am like everybody else, with my fragility and my gifts.” It made for a less aggressive posture toward the world – a posture that seems even more relevant today.

The irony of Mr. Vanier’s accomplishment is that he became a champion of the most anguished people on Earth in reaction to his own privileged upbringing.

His father, Canada’s 19th Governor-General, was a formative influence. A devoutly Catholic and bilingual Montrealer, Georges Vanier considered the priesthood before joining the Army as an officer and later becoming a lawyer. He lost his right leg in battle retaking the French town of Chérisy in 1918. He was serving as one of Canada’s first diplomats when Jean, the fourth of five children, was born to Georges’s wife, Pauline, while the couple was stationed in Geneva in 1928. Soon afterward, he was posted to the Canadian high commission in London.

Father and son watched the 1937 coronation parade of George VI from the roof of Canada House in London. The Vaniers then moved to Paris but fled to London just before the Nazis entered the city in June, 1940. They then decamped to Ottawa. The following year, 13-year-old Jean approached his father with an unusual request: He wanted to join the Royal Navy as a cadet at Britannia Royal Naval College in Devon, necessitating a dangerous journey back across the U-boat-infested North Atlantic.

“If that is what you feel you need to do, I trust you,” Georges told his son. Jean considered it an important declaration of paternal confidence. Others think that answer was one reason Mr. Vanier was as open and as searching as he was. “What kind of father does that?” Joe Guido, L’Arche Canada’s director of communications, asked recently. “I know Georges Vanier is a hero, but why not wait until his son is 18? Only a father from a very wealthy family could make a decision like that.” In the Vanier family, public service trumped everything. In 1959, after his appointment by John Diefenbaker as Governor-General, one of Georges Vanier’s first acts was to install a chapel at Rideau Hall. He prayed there twice a day.

So Jean was well trained in protocol and hierarchy and the obligations of class. He was too young to see action during the Second World War, but stayed in the Navy, accompanying the Royal Family as a midshipman on their 1947 tour of South Africa. By 1949, he had transferred to HMCS Magnificent, Canada’s largest aircraft carrier. But within a year, he found he was paying more attention to his prayers than to his watches on board, and resigned his commission. He was 22.

He spent the ensuing decade looking for a calling. “He was searching for years,” Mr. Guido observed. “The man was lost.” He helped resettle survivors of Auschwitz in Paris after the war. By the 1950s, France – having invented the public mental institution at the beginning of the 19th century – was abuzz with talk of “anti-traditional psychiatry,” just as Catholicism itself was turning itself inside out: The Catholic Worker Movement was founding “houses of hospitality,” in which Christians and low-income workers lived together in New York’s poorest neighbourhoods. Mr. Vanier explored all the radical outposts he could find, working in prisons and visiting the Benedict Labre House for homeless men in Montreal and Friendship House, a multiracial community in Harlem. He also embarked on a PhD (the ethics of friendship in Aristotle) at the Catholic University of Paris.

It was there in 1950 that Mr. Vanier joined L’Eau Vive, a spiritual centre for students who wanted to study theology but didn’t want to become priests (by now this included Mr. Vanier, to his mother’s disappointment). He instantly formed a deep friendship with L’Eau Vive’s founder, Rev. Thomas Philippe, a priest of the Dominican Order 24 years his senior. “From the first time I met him,” Mr. Vanier later wrote, “it was clear to me that our Père in Heaven had given him to me as a spiritual Père at that crucial moment in my life. He also became my teacher on an intellectual level.” Father Thomas taught Mr. Vanier to follow his instincts as a form of religious calling.

But two years later, Father Thomas was abruptly recalled to Rome, officially for health reasons. The 24-year-old Mr. Vanier threw himself into his PhD, defending his thesis in 1962.

Only in 2009 was it revealed – the official Vatican record is still sealed – that two women had accused Father Thomas of inappropriate sexual behaviour. In 2014, another five women came forward with their own accusations.

Mr. Vanier maintained – and independent investigations have corroborated his account – that it was only decades later, in 2013, that he became aware of Father Thomas’s real offences. The revelations shocked him, but he addressed the scandal with trademark candour. “A few years ago,” Mr. Vanier wrote in 2017, “I was told of certain acts, but I remained totally in the dark until now as to the depth of their gravity. I wish to tell the victims my complete compassion for what they have lived. I weep alongside those who have been hurt. And yet I cannot deny all that I owe to Father Thomas. … I am unable to peacefully reconcile these two realities.”

(Mr. Vanier himself lived what colleague Marie Antoinette Parisio, who now runs the L’Arche community in London, Ont., calls “a celibacy of solitude in his heart.”)

By 1963, Mr. Vanier was a professor at the St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto. His lectures were popular and referenced a wide range of influences – visits to mental institutions, the jazzed-up Catholicism of Vatican II, the teachings of monks and the writings of Gandhi, among many others.

By then Father Thomas had recovered his right to be a priest, and had been assigned the chaplaincy of Val Fleuri, an institution for roughly 30 men with intellectual disabilities in the French town of Trosly-Breuil.

The following summer, Mr. Vanier visited Father Thomas at Val Fleuri. He also toured a psychiatric hospital outside Paris. He was shocked by what he found there – 1,000 men living in almost medieval conditions – and recorded his first impressions of intellectually disabled people. “It was both an attraction and a repulsion,” he noted. “An attraction towards a mystery, and a repulsion in the face of abnormality. But above all else, what seduced me was their cry for friendship. They all turned toward me, like bees toward flowers. They touched me, asking me, ‘Will you come back to see us?’ ” He had uncovered not just his writing voice – incantatory and meditative – but a central insight into L’Arche’s future mission: His initial fear of the disabled – of their physical appearance, but also of their bottomless need, their incurable loneliness – was a mirror of his fear of his own fragility and his own inevitable death.

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A modern welcome sign on the original L'Arche home in Trosly-Breuil, France, founded in 1964 by Jean Vanier.Ian Brown/The Globe and Mail

Among those he met in the psychiatric hospital were Mr. Seux and Mr. Simi. “For all three men,” L’Arche’s literature would later point out, “it was the beginning of a new life radically different from anything they had known before.” Unlike his parents, Mr. Vanier was shedding status. “He has been very intentional about going down the ladder of success,” Ms. Parisio observes. Mr. Vanier believed Christ asked it of him.

And his downslide had its upside. Unlike the university, where, as Mr. Vanier once told me, his students “always wanted something from me,” life in the miniature house with his companions felt original, spontaneously improvised and equal. Mr. Vanier wasn’t much better at being the boss than they were. “Essentially,” he later recalled, “they were not very interested in my knowledge or my ability to do things, but rather they needed my heart and my being.” He immediately understood what L’Arche needed to be. “On the edge of the forest of Compiègne,” he wrote in 1964, “L’Arche has opened its first home for the mentally and physically handicapped. These family-like homes, each welcoming from four to nine boys, at least 20 years old, are lifelong homes. They are the first of a group of homes which will be linked together with workshops, a cultural centre, a chapel and the necessary medical help.”

In L’Arche homes, the subtle talents and wayward agendas of the disabled residents were as important as the care administered by their assistants. The first time I ever stayed in a L’Arche foyer (as the homes are called in France), one of my hosts was a handsome man in his late 30s named Laurent. He was French-Italian, and he did not speak. What he did instead was stand stock-still for minutes at a time, dressed in a fine dressing gown with elaborate frogging, a gift from his parents in Italy, with his arms extended from his shoulders. Very, very occasionally, he uttered a single word: train, the French word for train. He loved trains. Somehow, he seemed like one of the liveliest lights in the house. I doubt I will ever see him again, but the memory of him reminds me to find what is in my heart, at its simplest and most intense. Mr. Vanier created the possibility that Laurent could teach me something that important.

The longer he lived with the intellectually disabled, the more Mr. Vanier understood their deep, though often hidden value. He began from a concern about what society could do for people with disabilities, but quickly discovered what people with disabilities could bring to society. “L’Arche has provoked a Copernican revolution,” a bishop in Rome later said to Mr. Vanier. “Up until now, we have spoken about doing good to the poor. But at L’Arche, you say that it is the poor who do us good. It will take a long time before this idea is integrated into the church.” Somehow, Mr. Vanier’s risky idea had worked.

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Acolytes who heard Mr. Vanier speak began to flock to France to live with people with intellectual disabilities, and then returned home to spread the word.TIZIANA FABI

A tall, handsome man with an open face and an easy manner – he liked old pants and V-necked sweaters – Mr. Vanier was an uncommonly attentive listener and a charismatic speaker. He was also a much sought-after layman who could talk about faith in a world where Catholicism was being challenged by the anti-establishment protests of the day. “He didn’t say extraordinary things, but he told normal stories about real people,” Ms. Parisio remembers of her first meeting with Mr. Vanier. Sue Mosteller, a nun who worked at L’Arche for 40 years, found that “one of his deepest skills was his ability to help us trust ourselves.” Acolytes who heard Mr. Vanier speak began to flock to France to live with people with intellectual disabilities, and then returned home to spread the word: The second L’Arche community was founded in Toronto in 1969, followed by one in Bengaluru in 1970 and another in England in 1972. By 1975, there were 35 L’Arche communities.

Most assistants came for three months. An astonishing number stayed for decades. “He changed my life,” an early L’Archean who spent five years with the organization in France and India told me recently. “I think he opened a consciousness and a world to me. He reoriented my values.” One of Mr. Vanier’s last public appearances was in a video within a play written earlier this year by Stephanie Sandberg, a theatre professor at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Daybreak, the first L’Arche community in Canada. In the cameo, Mr. Vanier puts on a pair of giant blue sunglasses that allegedly allow whoever wears them to see the world from a new perspective – from below, from the position of fragility and mere being, rather than with top-down mastery and certainty. “I was just blown away by his warmth,” Prof. Sandberg said. “He’s so full of the moment he’s in.” Protocol had no place in Mr. Vanier’s world.

He had a knack for transforming everyday details into spiritual experiences – even if the connection was not immediately apparent to his listener. These details included everything from the birds in his backyard (they became, for him, a symbol of spiritual freedom) to Mr. Seux’s pepper pot, which was kept on the table and which contained a snake that sprang out when you opened it – an act of “silliness” that easily mutated into a conversation about Western society’s crushing obsession with success, dominance and perfection.

“In 1960, the big question in France was, what sort of a society do we want?” Mr. Vanier once said to me. “Was it the society of Mao Zedong? Was it the society of Russia? … Nowadays, nobody’s asking what sort of society we want. They’re just asking the question, how can I be a success in this society? Everyone, they’re on their own. Do the best you can, make the most money you can. So what sort of vision have we? Somewhere in L’Arche, there is a desire to be a symbol – a symbol that another vision is possible.” Mr. Vanier understood the gorgeous democracy of the flawed, and that our cracks are what make us human and equal.

He often took on too much, and some of his colleagues thought they detected the occasional whiff of noblesse oblige inherited from high-echelon Ottawa. He was a gifted listener, as noted, but always had a destination in mind in any conversation. Joe Egan, a former community leader at Daybreak who later ran L’Arche’s international expansion, arrived at Daybreak in 1972 and went to work as one of 10 assistants living with 15 disabled people in a single house. He did that for two years before Mr. Vanier visited for the first time, whereupon Mr. Egan was granted a 10-minute talk. Mr. Egan spent the first nine minutes complaining. He wanted to quit. “At the nine-minute mark in the conversation, Jean asked if he might speak,” Mr. Egan says. “He totally ignored everything I had said. Then he said, ‘The important thing is to be present with people.’ Then he asked if I prayed. ‘If you hope to stay in L’Arche longer than a summer,’ he said, ‘you have to discover a source of life bigger than yourself.’ ”

Mr. Egan stayed for 47 years. He helped open L’Arche communities in Rome, India and Bethlehem, where L’Arche first hired Arab assistants who then couldn’t get to work when Israel cracked down on the West Bank. A community in Africa had to be closed; a few in Canada had to be relocated to more populous areas. “I think there was a naïveté in the early years that L’Arche could thrive anywhere,” Mr. Egan admits. “And that just wasn’t true.”

Unlike more possessive founders of successful organizations, Mr. Vanier began to move away from the day-to-day running of L’Arche as early as 1975, at the age of 46. By then, he was being criticized for wearing too many hats – director, administrator, spiritual teacher, writer, public-relations manager, conference leader (he once organized a pilgrimage of thousands of disabled people to Lourdes, France) – while also engaging in a participatory management style. The result was formalized chaos.

As others took over the day-to-day running of the network, Mr. Vanier assumed a more ambassadorial role, albeit a public one – leading conferences and retreats, speaking all over the world and writing. He spent a month of every year in silence at a seminary. As he got older, he travelled (slightly) less: He knew he was a candidate for congestive heart failure for at least the last 10 years of his life, but still travelled to England, Palestine and Kenya in that time. At L’Arche, as he slowed down, he liked to conduct summer retreats and conferences about the Gospel of John. It was his favourite, the most reflective and flexible and easygoing of the Four Gospels, the one that eschews fiery bromides and strict rules on how one must behave to get into the highly restricted kingdom of heaven, and relies instead on stories and conversation and talk of an everlasting spirit.

He kept his sense of humour, too. Ms. Mosteller saw him for the last time in October. He was frail, “but beautiful,” she remembers. The nun reminded Mr. Vanier that she had confessed many years before that she hated pilgrimages and felt uncomfortable praying. His advice at the time had been to “rest with God.”

"That was 51 years ago,” Ms. Mosteller said to him. “And it wasn’t very good advice, because I still don’t like to pray. I just wondered if you had any more to offer.” By then both were shaking with laughter. But Mr. Vanier had the last word. “Wait,” he said.

“So that’s what I do now,” Ms. Mosteller admits. “I practise waiting, to see if anything is going to happen when I pray. Not that I have high hopes.”

What Mr. Vanier did to the end of his life was live as a member of the L’Arche community at Trosly-Breuil, eating lunch and dinner every day he was there with his fellow fragile residents. They embraced him anew each time they saw him, asked after his health, recounted jokes and details of their lives, told him that they loved him and treated him as the old friend he was. Like their equal. He considered that their most generous gift.

Further reading: Two men and a boy in the moon

In 2007, Ian Brown documented the struggles of his disabled son, Walker, in a three-part series for The Globe:

Mr. Brown reached out to Jean Vanier (then nearing his 80th birthday) and the two began a correspondence on life, aging and Mr. Vanier’s work with people with disabilities. Here are some of their letters to each other:

Mr. Brown told Walker’s story in the award-winning 2009 book The Boy in the Moon, which was also adapted to the stage in 2014.

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