Mr. Jean Vanier
Founder of l’Arche

Jean Vanier, son of General Georges Vanier, the first French-speaking Governor General of Canada, and Pauline Archer, was born on September 10, 1928, in Geneva, Switzerland, where his father was serving at the League of Nations.

Jean completed most of his studies in England, where his family lived until the Second World War broke out in 1939. In 1941, the Vanier family returned to Canada, and the following year, Jean returned to England to enter the Royal Naval College in England as a naval cadet. He was too young to join the fighting, but after the war he helped his mother, who was working with concentration camp survivors for the Red Cross. He received his commission in 1945 and joined the Canadian Navy, later serving onboard the aircraft carrier HMCS Magnificent.

In 1950, Jean left a promising military career to study at the Catholic Institute of Paris, living in and then becoming director of Eau Vive, a lay community near Paris. Jean then spent a year at the Trappist monastery of Notre-Dame-de-Bellefontaine in France, another on a farm, and two years at Fatima. In 1962, having received his doctorate in philosophy, Jean began teaching at St. Michael’s College in Toronto. Still thirsting to answer God’s call, he returned to Paris to join his former teacher and spiritual mentor Father Thomas Philippe, a Dominican chaplain at an institution for the mentally disabled in Trosly-Breuil. Feeling called by God to give his life to “the least of these,” Jean bought a dilapidated house in Trosly and moved in on August 5, 1964, together with Philippe Seux and Raphaël Simi, who had previously been living in a psychiatric institution—L’Arche was born.

Living with Philippe and Raphaël transformed Jean’s life. The once independent man of action was called to listen. “By touching the fragility and suffering of the mentally disabled, by receiving their confidence, I discovered a new source of tenderness in myself. They awakened a part of my being that until then had been underdeveloped. It opened me up to another world—the world of the heart, vulnerability, and communion,” he says.

As Jean began traveling and speaking about his own life-changing experience, other L’Arche communities sprang up around the world. In the 1970s, they together formed the International Federation of L’Arche Communities, comprising 131 communities in 34 countries. Jean also founded the movements Faith and Sharing and, with Marie-Héléne Mathieu, Faith and Light in 1968, as well as the student program Intercordia in 2002. Jean has written numerous books based on human fragility, compassion, reconciliation, and the importance of celebrating our humanity together. In the early 80s, Jean stepped down as leader of L’Arche in Trosly-Breuil and the International Federation of L'Arche Communities, though he still lives at the original Trosly community and travels the world giving talks and retreats while visiting other L’Arche communities.
© 2008 International Eucharistic Congress