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.
“Thérèse graduated first in her officers’ training class at Wellington Barracks,” Pauline Vanier told Deborah and George Cowley, for their book, One Woman’s Journey: A Portrait of Pauline Vanier, “which prompted Georges to say she had learned a most unfeminine number of ways in which even the strongest of men could be permanently disabled.”
After the Normandy invasion in 1944, Thérèse Vanier was sent across the Channel as a liaison officer with the Free French, exercising her bilingualism and organizational skills with such aplomb that she was later awarded the Croix de Guerre.
With peace finally established, she studied medicine, first at the Sorbonne, then at Girton College, Cambridge, followed by clinical training at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London, where she began a life-altering friendship with fellow trainee doctor Cicely Saunders.
A decade later, Dr. Vanier had become the first female consultant in hematology at St. Thomas’ Hospital and Dr. Saunders had left organized medical practice to start St. Christopher’s, a palliative centre for the terminally ill, thereby founding the modern hospice movement in England. Meanwhile, Dr. Vanier’s younger brother Jean, a naval officer by training and a philosopher by vocation, abandoned his professional career in 1964 to live communally in northern France with a couple of intellectually challenged men whom he had befriended.
At the time, Dr. Vanier wrote to her parents at Government House in Ottawa, that Jean was “very busy over some new project which he may have mentioned to you … a plan to set up some sort of house or houses near Compiègne for des débiles mentaux … I hope it works out alright.”
That first dwelling in Trosly-Breuil, some 90 kilometres north of Paris, which Mr. Vanier named l’Arche in commemoration of Noah’s Ark, has since grown to 146 ecumenical communities for the mentally disabled in 35 countries on five continents.
A frequent visitor to l’Arche in the early days and a confidante to her friend Dr. Saunders, as she built her “total pain, total care” palliative model, Dr. Vanier pulled together the various strands of her life – medicine, community service and religious faith – to weave the fabric of her personal, spiritual and professional vocation.
Over Easter, 1971, she joined an international pilgrimage to Lourdes in France, organized by her brother Jean. Among the 12,000 pilgrims from 15 countries, there were many with mental disabilities, including Dr. Saunders’s son Billy, who had been institutionalized because of his overwhelming physical needs – to the distress of both mother and son.
That pilgrimage precipitated two monumental decisions for Dr. Vanier.
In 1972, she startled the medical establishment by resigning her prestigious appointment at St. Thomas’ Hospital to work instead as a consultant at St. Christopher’s Hospice, helping Dr. Saunders ease the fear, warm the bleakness and stifle the pain of dying patients.
“When there is nothing more that can be done, everything can still be done,” was her guiding principle.
Although a traditionally trained doctor, she had an innate empathy with patients and was known to observe, “Doctors should be obliged to go into hospital once a year, so that they remember what it feels like.”
That same year, her widowed mother, Pauline, moved into the l’Arche community at Trosly, and Dr. Vanier began fundraising and organizing to establish l’Arche in England, based on her brother’s model that the mentally challenged should be active and distinct members of shared communities, rather than passive recipients of institutionalized care.
The first group home, in which the handicapped shared chores and life with “assistants,” opened in January, 1974, in a former Anglican vicarage near Canterbury, a gift of the Archbishop – an early ecumenical gesture by the head of the Church of England.
For the next quarter-century, Dr. Vanier used all her skills to meet the physical, social and spiritual needs of the terminally ill and the mentally challenged, bridging the information gap about palliative care and spreading the message about the simple yet profound blessings that the “people of the heart” can bestow on the rest of us.
Eloquently bilingual and mesmerizingly empathetic, she undertook an international ministry by giving lectures, appearing on television shows and speaking on panels in French and English language countries, including Canada.
Balfour Mount, a Canadian cancer surgeon, visited St. Christopher’s in 1973 and asked Dr. Vanier if he might accompany her on rounds. To his astonishment she “blushed and apologetically responded that she would not be comfortable with that, adding, ‘I wouldn’t know what to say.’”
Later that afternoon, as he made his way through the wards, he saw Dr. Vanier sitting at the bedside of an elderly patient.
“She was bent low … gently holding the woman’s hand; her right ear was discreetly at the woman’s mouth,” Dr. Mount wrote in an e-mail message, describing a “deep, if near-wordless, conversation” that “was a moment of intimacy, a moment of healing” for both patient and doctor.
It was a lesson in dying and healing that he took back with him to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, where he subsequently established the first palliative care unit in a Canadian hospital.
A devout Roman Catholic, Dr. Vanier became troubled that the shared life at l’Arche, which now has a half-dozen communities in England, didn’t include a celebration of the Eucharist for non-Catholics. L’Arche welcomes people of all faiths and none, but inevitably they go in different directions for religious services.
This separation at what she considered the heart of communal living – a celebration of religious faith – led her to join the ecumenical movement.
After she retired in 1988, she settled into l’Arche Lambeth on London’s South Bank, and wrote extensively on ecumenical and interfaith issues, including the short books, Nick, Man of the Heart, a spiritual biography of her friend, Nick Elleker, a disabled Anglican member of l’Arche Lambeth, and One Bread, One Body: The Ecumenical Experience of l’Arche.
Early in June, as l’Arche U.K. was preparing to celebrate its 40th anniversary in Canterbury Cathedral, Dr. Vanier wrote a letter to the organizers, saying, “I remain deeply grateful for all that l’Arche continues to be for me and for so many others.” That evening she had a serious fall and was taken to St. Thomas’ Hospital, where she had been a trainee doctor half a century earlier. She died a week later.
After the exquisite ecumenical symmetry of her requiem mass in Canterbury Cathedral, she was buried in the churchyard of St. Nicholas, Barfrestone, close to the first English l’Arche community.
Dr. Vanier was predeceased by her brothers Georges and Bernard and leaves her brothers Jean and Michel, and a host of friends and admirers.
Sandra Martin’s book, Great Canadian Lives: A Cultural History of Modern Canada through the Art of the Obit, has just been released in paperback by House of Anansi Press.
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