An Ark for our times – L’Arche’s Jean Vanier passes
by Jack Taylor
Swiss born, Jean Vanier (son of former Canadian Governor-General Georges Vanier and his wife Pauline), may not have known all the persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the 29 communities among the L’Arche Communities in Canada but his life impacted them nonetheless. So did his passing from thyroid cancer on May 7 in Paris.
L’Arche – the Ark – was actually birthed in Paris when Vanier was visiting a friend and noticed the disturbing conditions of those with learning difficulties. He purchased a home and welcomed two men, Raphael and Philippe, into community where he became convinced that those with challenges have a great deal to contribute and that by living in community with people, we open ourselves up to be challenged and to grow.
L’Arche Greater Vancouver, through their six homes, involve a community of approximately one hundred people – 22 of them with developmental disabilities. The community fosters relationship through safe, happy residences and meaningful workday programs that “develop and reflect individual choices, talents and gifts.” The Emmaus Center and the Neighbours Helping Neighbours program provide additional opportunities to serve and befriend those with disabilities.
Robyn Jackson from L’Arche Calgary says that “Jean Vanier’s passing is felt deeply in our community.” L’Arche Calgary, 5 km south of the city near the Chinook Centre, is creating community in five homes (Marymount, Villa Maria, Haeremai, Annapurna, Kichiyak) where three to four core members share their home with three to four assistants. 32 individuals with disabilities are supported there.
The Day Program provides work opportunities for core members who “learn and express themselves artistically”. Meals are prepared and shared together, neighbourhood activities and even vacations are enjoyed together. A Supported Independent Living Program is also available for those desiring more independence.
The first Canadian community started in Richmond Hill, Ontario and now they are spread across the country all the way from Comox, BC to Cape Breton, NS. Sr. Donna-Marie Perry FCJ, Delphine Lemire, and Pat and Jo Lenon founded L’Arche Calgary in August of 1973. Jackson says “the decision of the founders to start L’Arche was made without knowing how it would be funded and how we would find assistants. Our first home was given to us.”
The L’Arche homes “introduce spirituality, welcome guests and neighbours, keep conversations flowing while eating meals together with families and friends, pray together, celebrate birthdays and other milestones, share daily chores, plan outings and invite others to go on walks.” Each home is a place to belong and to express the unique gifts God has given to each person. “Our weekends are packed full of bowling, movies, going to concerts, and exploring the natural playground nearby.”
There are now 150 L’Arche communities in 38 countries “where people with and without disabilities live together as equals.” There are also 1,800 Faith and Light support groups, “for people with special needs and their families and friends, across 80 nations.” More than 10,000 people are invested in “welcoming and celebrating people with intellectual disabilities.”
In 2015, Vanier was given the Templeton Prize. “The Templeton Prize is an annual award granted to a living person who, in the estimation of the judges, “has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.” Vanier was also a recipient of the Order of Canada and a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. “He shared his vision through 40 books, countless public talks, and interviews.”
For his 90th birthday last year, Vanier produced a video with his “Ten Rules for Life to Become More Human.” One of them stated: “Don’t be afraid of not being successful.”
Jackson, from L’Arche Calgary says “Jean Vanier’s founding of L’Arche was in response to a deeply personal call to walk in the footsteps of, and follow the teachings and example of, Jesus. Jesus calls all of us to be the light and hope for the world, to see beyond and rise above our differences and disagreements to be a more loving and human society. For Jean, this meant entering into relationship with and sharing life with those deemed to be broken, different, and marginalized. L’Arche around the world – and here in Calgary – respond to this call by sharing life together in our respective communities and strive to create places of acceptance and belonging for people with and without disabilities.
“People can connect with a L’Arche community in many ways. Volunteers can support us at our events, on our board of directors, through group work projects at our homes, and by sharing life in our homes through cooking and leisure activities such as game nights. We encourage people who are interested in learning more about the L’Arche Calgary community and how they can connect with us to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org” To connect with the L’Arche community in Greater Vancouver send an email to email@example.com.