Jean Vanier, Catholic hero to the developmentally disabled, dies at 90

Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche charity, wears the Templeton Prize medal he won in 2015.
Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche charity, wears the Templeton Prize medal he won in 2015.
(Alastair Grant / Associated Press)

Jean Vanier, a Canadian religious figure whose charity work helped improve conditions for the developmentally disabled throughout the world over the past half-century, has died at 90.

Vanier died Tuesday in Paris after battling thyroid cancer, according to L’Arche, a charity he founded.

Pope Francis was informed of Vanier’s death and was praying for him and the community, said Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti.


Vanier worked as a Canadian navy officer and professor before turning to charity work. A visit to a psychiatric hospital prompted him to found L’Arche in 1964 as an alternative living environment where those with developmental disabilities could be full-fledged participants in the community instead of patients.

The charity now has communities in 38 countries that are home to thousands of people both with and without disabilities. Its facilities in the United State are located in Orange County.

“He saw people locked up, and he decided to make a gesture, inspired by the Bible,” said Pierre Jacquand, who leads L’Arche’s facilities in France. “He felt a calling to defend the most marginalized.”

“He gave them a voice,” Jacquand said, adding that over time, his work helped inspire broader change in how France addresses the needs of those with developmental disorders including Down syndrome and autism spectrum disorders.

He also traveled the world to encourage dialogue across religions, and was awarded the 2015 Templeton Prize for spiritual work, as well as France’s Legion of Honor. He was the subject of a documentary shown at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival called “Jean Vanier, the Sacrament of Tenderness.”

Vanier handed over leadership of L’Arche decades ago but continued to live in the first community center he founded north of Paris.


He had no direct descendants but left a legacy in many countries, and “his family is everywhere now,” Jacquand said.