Obituaries

Jean Vanier, who gave homes and dignity to the intellectually disabled, dies at 90

Mr. Vanier said the disabled “give us gifts we couldn’t have otherwise.’’
Mr. Vanier said the disabled “give us gifts we couldn’t have otherwise.’’

WASHINGTON — Jean Vanier came from privilege as a son of the British monarchy’s representative in Canada, the governor general. But his life would be defined not by the establishment, but by a restless quest for purpose.

After stints in the British and Canadian navies, he considered becoming a Catholic priest, ultimately deciding he was not meant for the seminary. But his life took a new direction in the early 1960s, when he traveled to France to see his spiritual mentor, a member of the Dominican order then serving as a chaplain at a home for people with intellectual disabilities.

At the chaplain’s urging, Mr. Vanier, then in his mid-30s, began visiting French asylums. He found what he described as a “chaotic atmosphere of violence and uproar.”

Advertisement

The scene was typical of mental institutions around the world at the time. Underfunded and largely unregulated, they were used to house people with mental illness, intellectual disabilities, dementia, and other conditions that made them undesirable to society.

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
A look at the news and events shaping the day ahead, delivered every weekday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Witnessing their suffering, Mr. Vanier discovered a profound affinity for disabled people and saw them as a ‘‘source of life and truth, if we welcome them . . . and put ourselves at their service.’’

He resolved to build a community where people with and without intellectual disabilities could live and work alongside one another as equals. With financial help from his parents and other patrons, Mr. Vanier bought what he called a ‘‘dilapidated’’ house in the French town of Trosly-Breuil, northeast of Paris

That house was the first of 154 communities across 38 countries that today form the network known as L’Arche International — French for the ark that saved Noah and the animals during the flood in the Old Testament book of Genesis.

Mr. Vanier, who in 2015 received the Templeton Prize honoring “exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension,” died May 7 at a medical center in Paris at 90. The prize, bestowed by the US-based John Templeton Foundation, was worth approximately $1.7 million.

Advertisement

He began his work just as deinstitutionalization, which called for patients to be removed from psychiatric hospitals and integrated into the community, began to take hold internationally. Margaret A. Nygren, the executive director of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, placed him “at the forefront of a grassroots movement” toward that end.

Other humanitarians approached people with disabilities ‘‘either from the philanthropic or the altruistic point of view,’’ said Michael W. Higgins, a biographer of Mr. Vanier’s, complacent in the assumption that it fell to the powerful to help the powerless. Mr. Vanier upended that philosophy ‘‘by saying that no, those who have the power — those who are able — need the disabled and the powerless’’ and that ‘‘they give us gifts we couldn’t have otherwise.’’

Jean François Antoine Vanier was born on Sept. 10, 1928, in Geneva, where his father, Georges Vanier, was posted with the League of Nations. His mother, the former Pauline Archer, came from a prominent Quebecois family. The couple had five children, including a daughter and three other sons.

Mr. Vanier spent part of his childhood in England and then in France until the perils of World War II sent the family back to Canada. At 13, Mr. Vanier declared that he wished to return to England and enroll at Britain’s Royal Naval College at Dartmouth. The trip would entail braving the U-boats that menaced the Atlantic waters. But Mr. Vanier’s father, who had lost a leg during military service in World War I, agreed.

The war had ended by the time Mr. Vanier completed his military training. He commanded an aircraft carrier before leaving the military after a 30-day Ignatian retreat. He told Tippett that navy service had made him ‘‘a man who knew how to be efficient and quick,’’ one who ‘‘knew how to give commands,’’ but one who lacked meaningful relationships in his life before he founded L’Arche. He never married and had no immediate survivors.

Advertisement

After resigning his commission in 1950, Mr. Vanier studied at Eau Vive, a contemplative community near Paris, and later lived at a Trappist monastery. He enrolled at the Institut Catholique in Paris, receiving a doctorate in 1962 with a dissertation on Aristotle, and taught Aristotelian ethics at the University of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto before returning to France to found L’Arche.

‘‘I knew it was an irreversible act,’’ he told the Herald of Glasgow in 1998. ‘‘But I did not know that L’Arche would grow as it has.’’

In addition to L’Arche International, Mr. Vanier co-founded Faith and Light, a network of support groups for people with intellectual disabilities and their families, in 1971. He wrote more than 30 books, including ‘‘An Ark for the Poor’’ (1995) and ‘‘Becoming Human’’ (1998). He was the subject of biographies including ‘‘The Miracle, the Message, the Story’’ (2006) by Kathryn Spink and Higgins’s ‘‘Jean Vanier: Logician of the Heart’’ (2016), as well as the documentary film ‘‘Summer in the Forest’’ (2017).