Jean Vanier – L’Arche and the Kilkenny Connection

Nicholas Maher (2019)

Recently I was saddened to hear the news of the death of Jean Vanier, a man known worldwide as the founder of the L’Arche Communities for adults with Intellectual Disabilities and a visitor to Kilkenny and Ireland on numerous occasions.

Many of you will be aware of the L’Arche Community houses in Callan and Kilmoganny, but you may not be aware of how it all started. When I was researching this talk, I was lucky to meet up and discuss this period with a fellow Saturday morning History Walker – Alva Fitzgerald – who provided me with some invaluable insight into the development of the L’Arche services in the Kilkenny region at this time. Back in the mid 1970’s, Alva had read a book written by a Jesuit entitled “Enough Room For Joy”, which detailed the work and philosophy of Jean Vanier and his L’Arche movement, advocating amongst other topics, an emphasis on community living for people with an intellectual disability. This became a revolutionary experience of living in community, providing a diverse place of refuge which gave its inhabitants hope. This made a huge impression on Alva and she would go on in 1976 and spend one year in the village of Trosly-Breuil, north of Paris, where Jean Vanier had set up his first house in 1964 – a tumble down stone cottage which he called L’Arche, meaning The Ark.

Indeed the activities in Trosly did not escape the attention of the then Bishop of Ossory, Peter Birch, who visited Jan Vanier in the French Village in late 1976 and saw how the community model worked there. He invited Vanier to perform a retreat in Kilkenny which he duly did in 1977. From this Kilmoganny was born.

Alva was asked by Jean Vanier to become the Community’s founding Director and she moved to Kilkenny in October 1977 to work with the local people in Kilmoganny to achieve this aim. L’Arche Moorfields opened on 31st May 1978 with two core Members and in June 1978 the official opening was attended by Jean Vanier – the 1st L’Arche Community house in Ireland. The house was donated by a local lady with some lands that L’Arche planned to cultivate. Callan later developed a service in the mid 1980’s. The local support for the house in Kilmoganny left a huge impression on Jean Vanier and he often quoted the Kilmoganny experience in later talks and travels. He saw L’Arche Kilmoganny as , and I quote, “truly a model of insertion into the local community; shouldn’t each L’Arche centre remain at the service of the local community, welcoming mainly the people from the village or neighbourhood, rather than taking people from far away”.

And what of the man himself?
Jean Vanier was born in Geneva on 10/9/1928, the 4th of 5 children of Georges Vanier, a Canadian soldier and Diplomat, and his wife Pauline, nee Archer, both committed Catholics. His paternal grandmother was Irish, an O’Mahoney from the Co Clare. His childhood was spent between Canada, France and Britain. In 1942, at the age of 14, he joined the Royal Navy College in Dartmouth. While a Cadet in Dartmouth, he returned to France in 1945 to visit his parents following the liberation of Paris. While there, he accompanied his mother, who was working with the Canadian Red Cross, to the Gare d’Orsay, where he witnessed survivors returning from Buchenwald, Dachau and Ravensbrück, an experience he never forgot. He resigned his Naval commission in 1950 and proceeded to study at L’Institut Catholique in Paris for a PhD in Aristoltelian Ethics. This was followed by periods of Teaching and Lecturing in Philosophy most notably at the University of Toronto.

Vanier’s life was beginning to take a more spiritual path and in the summer of 1964, aged 35, having given up his teaching post in Toronto, this tall, handsome, ex Naval officer invited two men with learning disabilities to leave the miserable asylum where they had spent most of their lives and make a home with him in a tumble down stone cottage in the village of Trosly- Breuil, north east of Paris. Vanier set out thinking he was doing something good for the two men, but quickly began to realise that he was being transformed by them. They were, he would later say, teachers of tenderness, with qualities of wonderment, spontaneity and directness that many of us “normal” people lacked. Life in Trosly brought a sense of belonging and a heartfelt sense of wellbeing, creating the same sense of belonging as you get in a family.

And so from such humble beginnings the L’Arche movement started its 1st community in France in 1964. In Kilkenny, L’Arche has since expanded its residential centres in Kilmoganny, Callan and Kilbride, with in addition, 4 workshops and 2 garden projects, and a café in Callan. Worldwide there are 149 Communities in 38 countries, supporting adults with Intellectual disabilities with day services and residential homes.

The more one studies this man’s life and talks the more you run out of words to describe him adequately. He was profoundly humble, a wonderful humanitarian to say the least, a man of action fuelled no doubt by many hours of contemplation. For many who lived in his presence he was a spiritual giant, even a living saint. Though deep rooted in his catholic faith, he was very much inclusive and ecumenical. To quote his own words “ My feet are rooted in my faith but my arms are wide open”. He once said that the “ideal does not exist” which prompted me to remember those wonderful lines from the Canadian Poet and Songwriter, Leonard Cohen, when he said :

“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in”

Jean Vanier died, aged 90, on 7/5/2019 and is buried in the local cemetery at the village of Trosly-Breuil, north east of Paris.

References

  • Alva Fitzgerald
  • The Tablet (London)
  • Irish Times
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