As Scott Tattrie notes, a lot of the core members and assistants at L’Arche Homefires are feeling sad and down after the death of founder Jean Vanier on May 7.
Vanier visited the Wolfville community twice after Jeff and Debbie Moore opened their home to two men with disabilities in 1981.
In 1985, Vanier was greeted with hugs and great excitement. A warm and unassuming man, his personal philosophy had already circled the world.
“We are told from a very young age that we have to be first to succeed, we have to win,” he said. “But we find we are lonely because we have no wealth of commitment and community.”
Vanier spent two days in Wolfville and spoke of the sense of celebration that characterizes every L’Arche home. At that point he was spending about 45 per cent of his time visiting 80 communities internationally.
Vanier returned in 2001 for the 20th anniversary of Homefires, which included a fiesta attracting 300 people.
He was also guest speaker at a weekend conference, entitled The Gift of Life, that attracted youth from all over the Maritimes.
Vanier told the youthful participants, “We have won the riches, the houses, the money, but have lost our sense of community, solidarity and commitment to one another.”
Living in one of the 120 L’Arche communities that focus on inclusion, Vanier said, “recognizes we cannot do it alone, a plea that in our weakness we need others. Each community is a sign that love is possible.”
Today, there are 149 L’Arche communities in 38 countries around the world.
Recently retired Homefires director Ingrid Blais reacted to Vanier’s death at 90 by speaking of gratitude.
“My heart is filled with deep gratitude today for Jean’s life. He was a man of peace and a man who saw beauty in each person,” she said.
“He changed my life path and changed the world for so many people. He was a man of deep faith, a man of love, he saw people’s gifts when they could not see them, but perhaps what I value most is his incredible capacity to truly listen. When you spoke with Jean his attention was totally on you no matter what was going on around him. He was an amazing mentor.”
Acadia University professor emeritus John Sumarah echoed that memory. He spoke of Vanier’s seemingly vast capacity to be attentive and present to others.
“He had this huge intellect and huge heart,” he said. “Vanier was a tremendous gift to humanity and he had a global impact.”
Sumarah, who is a grandfather now, recalled meeting Vanier at the age of 22 and being gently challenged to go to India on behalf of L’Arche. He thinks now that Vanier saw qualities in him that Sumarah didn’t know he possessed.
He remembered telling Vanier he had no funds to travel that distance and it wasn’t long before a blank cheque was placed in his hands.
“He trusted us. He was supportive and a loyal friend. I was one of many,” Sumarah said. The two men were last in touch about three months ago.
“My sadness is tempered with gratitude. He loved a lot of people and always had enough room (in his life) for joy. He loved playing the clown.”
Six years ago, Wolfville native Shannon Coates got to meet Vanier in his home in the French village of Trosly-Breuil.
After working on fundraising for the new Homefires headquarters for two summers as a student, Coates went to France on exchange. She was deputized to share with Vanier the redevelopment plans.
“I showed him a video I’d made,” she said. “He was so interested in me. He really was a lovely person.”
Coates, who now teaches in Ontario, says that her time working and volunteering with L’Arche helped her find a path in life.
She expressed gratitude for the relationships she developed at Homefires, especially working with Blais. Both staff member Devon Edmonds and assistant Rebekah Krahn echo that sentiment in terms of the individuals they’ve gotten to know by joining the L’Arche community.
DID YOU KNOW?
Vanier also founded the Faith and Light movement that has fostered 1,800 support groups for people with disabilities and their families and friends across 80 nations.
He also inspired Intercordia, Sumarah said, which is a non-profit organization that partners with Canadian universities to offer students a unique, university-accredited, engaged-learning experience.
The son of a Canadian Governor General, Vanier served in the navy during the Second World War. In 1950, he began studying theology and philosophy. His doctoral studies on happiness in the ethics of Aristotle led to him becoming a professor in Toronto.
During the Christmas holidays of 1964, he visited a friend working as a chaplain at an institution outside Paris. The conditions there prompted him to buy a small house and invite two men with disabilities to join him. From there, a worldwide movement was born.
Vanier wrote more than 30 books, including the popular 1998 release Becoming Human.