Jean Vanier, Founder of L’Arche
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 send 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, the organisation of a pilgrimage of 12.000 people with developmental disabilities, their friends and families to Lourdes led to the co-founding of Faith and Light with Marie-Hélène Mathieu. 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 peoples 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, amongst which are the French Legion of Honour, Companion of the Order of Canada, the Rabbi Gunther Plaut Humanitarian Award 2001 and the recent Chicago Catholic Theological Union “Blessed are the Peace-makers” award, 2006.
Up until today, 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 travelled, amongst 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.