Tapestry

Jean Vanier reflects on a life devoted to people with disabilities

Jean Vanier, the Canadian who created the L’Arche network of communities for intellectually disabled people, has died. Tapestry revisits a 2005 interview in which Jean Vanier told Mary Hynes about the genesis of his beliefs, the founding of L’Arche and what it brought him. 
Jean Vanier is the founder of L'Arche, an international network of communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together. (Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press)
Listen to the full episode53:59

Jean Vanier, the founder of the L'Arche, died on May 7 at age 90 from thyroid cancer. L'Arche — "The Arc" — is an international charity devoted to housing and supporting people with developmental disabilities.

Vanier, son of former governor general Georges Vanier, built the first community in France, not far from Paris, after visiting a psychiatric hospital in 1964. The organization was inspired by Vanier's Catholicism and was meant to allow those with disabilities to live happy lives well into adulthood.

Vanier despaired when he learned that many of these adults would be kept in psychiatric institutions if they had no family who would support them.

L'Arche communities spread across 38 countries in the ensuing decades, with more than 10,000 members. L'Arche Daybreak, based in Richmond Hill, Ont. was the first Canadian community.

In 2005, at the home of one of Vanier's friends in Toronto, Tapestry's Mary Hynes interviewed Vanier about the genesis of his beliefs and the founding of L'Arche, four decades earlier. Their conversation was originally broadcast 15 days after the death of Pope Jean Paul II, on Apr. 17, 2005. 

Among many other topics, Vanier described growing old and its physical and spiritual implications, including the decision to step away from running L'Arche. 

"When we grow old, we discover other things. We discover tenderness. We discover fragility. Like people in my own home — there was a time when I was seen as the leader. Now they look at me and say, 'Poor guy, you're looking tired. You've ought to go and rest,'" he said.

"There is a time where we must appear strong. [...] But then you must also come to the other place, where you discover the competence of other people."

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