Jean Vanier, charity founder

Born: September 10 1928;

Died: May 7 2019

JEAN Vanier, who has died aged 90, was a Canadian Catholic theologian who, in 1964, founded L’Arche, a charity devoted to communal living, in which those with developmental disabilities live alongside those who help care for them. It began in one small house, at Trosly-Breuil, near Paris, where Vanier spent almost all his life after founding the community, but it spread to dozens of countries: in Scotland, it began in Inverness in 1975, opened a further community in Edinburgh in 1991, and is currently looking to expand. In all, more than 35 countries, and hundreds of centres, now offer shared living for people whom Vanier had first encountered in what he himself called “idiot asylums”, and those who chose to live and work alongside them.

Vanier also co-founded the non-denominational Christian association Faith and Light, which offers regular meetings and a forum for those with developmental difficulties and their families; some 1,500 groups now operate in 81 countries.

Though Vanier was often described as saintly, he had not begun his charitable work with any overtly worthy intent but, he claimed, because he thought it would be “fun”. And much of the success of his movements was rooted in his conviction that Christian mission, and the communities he inspired, should be about friendship, worship and celebration that had joy as their foundation. This was of a piece with his theology; his doctoral thesis, on Aristotle, was entitled Happiness as Principle and End of Aristotelian Ethics.

Vanier was extremely well-connected, and quietly became an international conciliator in ecumenical disputes and peace talks; he became a Companion of the Order of Canada and was awarded the Légion d’honneur and, in 2015, the Templeton Prize, the leading award for contributions to spiritual life. The Pope personally thanked him for his work in the week before he died. But despite these worldly recognitions, he continued to live quietly in the cottage where he had begun L’Arche.

Jean Vanier was born on September 10, 1928, in Geneva, where his father was posted as a diplomat. Major-General Georges Vanier was a career soldier and diplomat from Quebec who served with considerable distinction in both world wars and, in 1959, became Governor-General of Canada; his wife Pauline was equally at ease in diplomatic circles and became the first female member who was not a serving politician to join the Canadian Privy Council, as well as Chancellor of the University of Ottawa. The devout Vaniers took seriously the humanitarian and charitable elements of their faith.

Jean Vanier was educated in Canada and France and at a Jesuit prep school in Berkshire. In 1942, with the war at its height, he enrolled at Dartmouth Naval College as a cadet and, after the liberation of France, visited his mother, who was working with the Red Cross in Paris. He served as an officer in the Royal Navy and then with the Royal Canadian Navy; his duties included a spell as a midshipman accompanying the Queen and Prince Phillip during their visit to South Africa in 1947.

In 1950 he resigned his commission in order to study philosophy and theology at L’Institut Catholique in Paris, where he completed his PhD. He worked as a lecturer at the University of Toronto, but felt called to devote his life to following the example of Jesus. In 1964, thanks to his friendship with a priest in Paris, he began visiting asylums, where he was much moved by “the screams and atmosphere of sadness”, and became convinced that people with learning disabilities would fare better living outside institutions, alongside “normal” people.

From one such institution he invited two men, Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux, to share his cottage, where they all did the chores and went on drives together. “I had no idea of starting a movement,” he said; indeed, at one stage he thought there should be no more people involved than would fit in his car, otherwise the jaunts would fall by the wayside. In Summer in the Forest, a documentary film made about L’Arche in 2017, Seux said Vanier’s decision had transformed his life: “In the psychiatric hospital there was nothing to do – just sit on your arse all day doing sod all.” Michel Petit, another who joined L’Arche after decades in institutions, simply declared: “Jean Vanier is a man who loves us very much.”

Vanier himself contended that life in the sort of communities L’Arche established was tremendously good fun: “Every meal can be a celebration,” he once said. “Many people with disabilities, they have been so pushed down, they don’t know they’re loveable, and then the day that they discover that they are loveable and that they can trust themselves, then it becomes whoopee!”

He wrote numerous books on spirituality and on the models he had created, including Being Human (1998) and Befriending the Stranger (2005). He stood down as leader of L’Arche in 1981, but continued to live in the community until shortly before his death.

Andrew McKie