It was in the French village of Trosly-Breuil where Jean Vanier, in 1964, invited two men with intellectual disabilities to live with him in what became the first L’Arche home. Since that time, 154 L’Arche communities have evolved in 38 countries on five continents. Canada has 30 of the communities, one of them in the Comox Valley.
Vanier — the son of former governor general Georges P. Vanier, after whom the Courtenay high school is named — passed away Tuesday, May 7 at age 90. He had been suffering from thyroid cancer.
“There’s a sadness but there’s also an immense gratitude for his life, for his inspiration, for what he created — these communities of belonging,” said L’Arche Comox Valley executive director Christine Monier, who knew Vanier on a personal level, having lived four years in Trosly-Breuil, north of Paris. She has been invited to attend Vanier’s funeral, May 16 in Trosly-Breuil. She will be representing L’Arche Western Canada.
Monier remembers Vanier as a selfless, humble person, and a good listener.
“He was a peacemaker, he was a philosopher, a risk taker,” she said. “He broke down barriers and walls. He looked at what brought people together, like our common humanity.”
Though he came from a privileged background, the Swiss-born Vanier decided to befriend people with intellectual disabilities, and became a voice for the vulnerable and the marginalized.
“I think Jean Vanier, in many ways, helped us to evolve, and get to a point where we could see that each person has an inherent value and gift — how they inspire us to be better people, to be more patient, to be more welcoming,” Monier said. “He didn’t align himself with the powerful.”
But he did meet with a number of well-known figures, including the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa and Desmond Tutu. Vanier was also an Order of Canada and French Legion of Honour recipient. In 2015, he received the Templeton Prize for spiritual work.
“(But) Nothing was about him,” Monier said.
The origins of L’Arche Comox Valley date back to 1983, when a group of people heard Vanier speak at a retreat in Victoria. Ten years later, L’Arche Comox Valley became a non-profit. The Jubilee House supported residence opened in 2000, and the I Belong Centre opened in 2017.
“His legacy lives on,” Monier said. “He wanted to make a difference in the world. Our L’Arche community is very much shaped by his vision, his philosophy. It’s about creating bridges, honoring and recognizing the gifts and contributions of everyone.”