Jean Vanier | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Jean Vanier

Jean Vanier, CC, GOQ, philosopher, humanist, founder of L’Arche and co-founder of Faith and Light (born 10 September 1928 in Geneva, Switzerland; died 7 May 2019 in Paris, France). The son of Georges Vanier, governor general of Canada (1959–1967), and Pauline Vanier (née Archer), Vanier worked as a navy officer and professor before devoting his life to advocating for persons with intellectual disabilities. In February of 2020, an investigative report found that Vanier had sexually abused at least six women between 1970 and 1995, thereby raising questions about his legacy of service and reputation as a spiritual leader.

Early Life

As a young boy, Jean Vanier attended school in France, Canada and England. He grew up speaking French and English. At the age of 13, in 1942, Vanier began an eight-year naval career, first with the British Royal Navy and later with the Royal Canadian Navy. In 1950, Vanier resigned his naval commission to follow a more spiritual calling.

Vanier moved back to France to study theology and philosophy. He joined Eau Vive, a faith-based organization for lay people headed by Dominican priest, Father Thomas Philippe, who would go on to serve as Vanier’s spiritual mentor. He also began his doctoral studies in philosophy at the Institut Catholique de Paris. In 1962, Vanier defended his thesis on happiness and the ethics of Aristotle. By 1963, he was a teaching professor at St. Michael's College at the University of Toronto.

Jean Vanier receives the 2015 Templeton Prize. Photo: Catholic Church England and Wales. Flickr.

Founding of L’Arche

Jean Vanier was deeply affected by a visit to a psychiatric hospital in Saint-Jean-les-Deux-Jumeaux, just outside of Paris. He was outraged by the bleak living conditions in the hospital and touched by the longing for friendship he observed in those who lived there. In 1964, Vanier left academia and established L’Arche (the Ark), a home for men with disabilities, in Trosly-Breuil, France. L’Arche was designed as a family-like environment where people with developmental disabilities could be full participants in the community, instead of living like patients in institutions. Vanier would serve as the head of this household for the next 17 years.

In 1969, L’Arche expanded to Canada. The first Canadian community, L'Arche Daybreak, was founded in Richmond Hill, Ontario. By 2019, there were 29 L’Arche communities across the country. L’Arche Canada’s national structure includes the L’Arche Canada Foundation (LCF), the Association des Arches du Québec (AAQ) and the Fondation des Arches du Québec (FAQ). There are more than 150 L’Arche communities in 38 countries around the world.

Vanier also co-founded Faith and Light, a movement bringing people with and without intellectual disabilities together in friendship. Faith and Light has communities in 86 countries.

Allegations of Sexual Abuse against L’Arche Internationale co-founder Father Thomas Philippe

In 2014, L’Arche Internationale was confronted with allegations of sexual abuse committed by its co-founder, Father Thomas Philippe, who died in 1993.

The organization condemned the actions of abuse. Vanier responded to the findings in a 2015 letter, saying he was “overwhelmed and shocked, absolutely unable to understand how this could have happened.”

In 2019, L’Arche Internationale commissioned an external organization to conduct an independent inquiry in order to better understand the history of these events, and to “refine its work to prevent abuse and to improve its policies and procedures.”

Writing and Honours

Jean Vanier was well-known for his writing about spirituality, community and humanity. He published many books, including Tears of Silence (1970), Eruption to Hope (1971), Followers of Jesus (1976), Community and Growth (1979), The Broken Body (1988), From Brokenness to Community (1992), Becoming Human (1998) and Befriending the Stranger (2005). Becoming Human was the basis for Jean Vanier’s 1998 CBC Massey Lecture.

In addition to his nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize, Vanier won many honours in Canada and abroad including the French Legion of Honour (1994), the Gaudium and Spes Prize, L’Ordre des Chevaliers de Colomb (2005) and the Globe and Mail’s Nation Builder Award (2008). He was also the recipient of the prestigious Templeton Prize (2015), placing him in the company of previous recipients such as Mother Teresa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. Vanier was named a Companion of the Order of Canada (1986) and Grand Officer, National Order of Quebec (1992).

Jean Vanier receiving the 2015 Templeton Prize. Photo: Catholic Church England and Wales. Flickr.

In 2017, Vanier was the subject of two documentaries: Summer in the Forest and Jean Vanier, the Sacrament of Tenderness, which was screened at the Cannes Film Festival.

Jean Vanier died at the age of 90 in Paris, France. Vanier remained the leader of the L’Arche community in Trosly-Breuil, France until 1981. He lived there until just a few weeks before his death.

Allegations of Sexual Abuse against Jean Vanier

In February of 2020, an independent investigation commissioned by L’Arche Internationale revealed that Jean Vanier had “manipulative sexual relationships” with at least six women between 1970 and 1995. The findings, released to the public on 22 February 2020, have led to a difficult reckoning of Vanier’s reputation as a spiritual leader and his legacy of service.

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