Social Studies

Jean Vanier's Story

Born in 1928 in Geneva, Switzerland, where his father was serving as a Canadian diplomat, Jean Vanier is the son of Governor-General Georges Vanier and Pauline Vanier, who were much loved by Canadians for their social concern. Jean was educated in England and Canada and grew up speaking both French and English.

At age 13, he persuaded his father to permit him to leave Canada, make the dangerous crossing of the Atlantic at the height of World War Two, and enter England's Royal Naval Academy. He served in the British Navy and then the Royal Canadian Navy. In 1950, looking for deeper meaning in his life, he resigned his commission in the navy and began a period of spiritual search. During this time he lived in a student community and worked on a doctorate in philosophy, which he received from the Institut Catholique in Paris.

Jean Vanier was at the forefront of the de-institutionalization movement. After teaching for a year at St. Michael's College, University of Toronto, and, still seeking his life direction, he returned to France where he was invited by Père Thomas Philippe, his spiritual mentor, to visit people with intellectual disabilities in an institution.

Distressed by the plight of the people he met and touched by their desire for friendship, in 1964 he bought a small house in the French village of Trosly-Breuil and welcomed two men (Raphaël Simi and Philippe Seux) from an institution. Together, they created a family-like home. They named their home "L'Arche," after Noah's Ark. Young people (assistants) inspired by this new way of living in community soon came to help and L'Arche grew quickly.

Meanwhile, Vanier's concern extended to other marginalized people - the homeless, prisoners, those who are abandoned. Today, Jean Vanier continues to live in the original L'Arche community in France. He gives much time still to mentoring young assistants in their personal journey and to traveling to give talks. In these, he prioritizes time with young people.

Jean Vanier is internationally recognized for his compelling vision of what it means to live a fully human life and for his social and spiritual leadership in building a compassionate society. He has written a number of best-selling books and has received numerous honours and awards recognizing his humanitarian work and his leadership as a social visionary. These include the Companion of the Order of Canada, the Legion of Honour (France), the Pope Paul VI International Prize, the International Peace Award (Community of Christ), and the Rabbi Gunther Plaut Humanitarian Award. He is also a Nobel Prize nominee.

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Credits: Permission granted by L'Arche Canada ( Offsite link to L'Arche Canada).

About L'Arche


Soon after Jean Vanier began L'Arche in 1964, other homes were opened in Trosly, France and beyond. L'Arche began in North America, in 1969, with the opening of L'Arche Daybreak, near Toronto. Today, there are 29 L'Arche communities across Canada and more than 135 communities around the world on six continents.


Jean Vanier took as his inspiration the Beatitudes, a biblical passage that declares that the poor are "blessed." L'Arche believes that every person is blessed with important gifts to offer to others and that we are called to create a society in which each one's gifts can be given and recognized.

L'Arche communities reflect their locales. In Canada, people of different ethnic backgrounds and various Christian denominations as well as people of Jewish, Muslim and other faiths or with no faith association are part of L'Arche. In communities in India, Hindus, Muslims and Christians share life together. L'Arche believes in supporting each person in his or her own faith tradition. In every country L'Arche has the same spirit of welcome and the same sharing in mutual relationships.


Vanier soon discovered that, while L'Arche was a wonderful place of growth and healing for the people with intellectual disabilities, many of whom had suffered in dehumanizing institutions, to his surprise it was also a place of personal growth for him. The people whom he had befriended had much to teach him about what is most important in life. This awareness of the mutuality of relationships and the humanizing gifts of people with disabilities is fundamental to L'Arche.

Governments regard L'Arche as an outstanding "service provider" for people with disabilities, but it is more than this. In L'Arche, assistants and people with an intellectual disability live and relax together. Celebrations and creative activities are important, as is participation in the wider society. The assistants, who usually come for a year or two, are challenged to discover their common humanity. Many say L'Arche helped them to recognize their gifts, clarify their values and decide on their direction in life. L'Arche is sometimes called a "university of the heart."

Credits: Permission granted by L'Arche Canada ( Offsite link to L'Arche Canada).

Last updated: November 30, 2009 | (Revision History)
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