Building the Ark

A navy warship is an unusual training ground for a life in human service, but Jean Vanier is an unusual man.

The founder of L'Arche, an international federation of communities for people with developmental disabilities and those who assist and live with them, he was compelled to a life of service when as a member of the Canadian navy, Vanier encountered survivors of Nazi concentration camps in Europe.

"I met Jesus in a new way."

Resigning his naval commission, Vanier pursued an academic career, but meeting a French priest named Father Thomas Philippe led Vanier to establish the first L’Arche community.

It’s an inspiring story, and one that led Assistant Professor of Philosophy Aaron Kerr, Ph.D. and The Rev. George Strohmeyer '60 to bring it to a class they jointly taught.

Kerr used Vanier’s book, “Becoming Human,” in his Philosophy of Ethical Responsibility course this semester as, he said, “a sort of synthetic/cathartic/conclusive exclamation point on a class attempting to gain a broad vision of what it means to be a moral human being in the globalized 21st century. His premise is that the reified layers of identity, surface prejudices and fears are mitigated at the very point human persons can become vulnerable with one-another. Students learn, in conversing with others/strangers, to name their fears and embrace their vulnerabilities, thereby ‘Becoming Human,’ as Vanier suggests.”

Father Strohmeyer’s connections to L’Arche date to the movement’s beginning in the U.S. He attended one of the first of a series of retreats, which are still held in their original location in Ontario. “Though Vanier is a layman, I’d never heard anybody speak the Gospel with such authority,” Father Strohmeyer said, adding, “I met Jesus in a new way.”

Within a year, he helped establish the first L’Arche community in Erie at West Fifth and Chestnut streets, within sight of the Gannon campus where he had been teaching social work. His co-founder was the late Sister Barbara Karsznia, O.S.B., who was a counselor to the women who attended Gannon College, then an all-male institution. Father Strohmeyer cites the support of Monsignor Wilfrid Nash, then the president of Gannon, as essential. “He said to Barbara and me, ‘Go! Do this,’ even though a lot of people—Bishop [Alfred] Watson among them—thought we were crazy,” he said with a laugh.

“We were the seventh L’Arche community in the world and first in the U.S. There are 140 now,” Father Strohmeyer said.

The Gannon connection with the Erie L’Arche community remains strong. The current executive director and community leader, Vicki Washek and her husband, Deacon Steve, Gannon’s director of campus ministry, were both students of Father Strohmeyer’s. Cheryl Rink, assistant director or experiential education, was the community’s first assistant when she was a student.

Hear more about Jean Vanier and the L'Arche communities from Assistant Professor of Philosophy Aaron Kerr, Ph.D., and The Rev. George Strohmeyer '60.

Father Strohmeyer continues to be close to Vanier, now 86 and living at the original L’Arche community in France. “I was with him twice this past year. He reminds people of the beauty of themselves. Most people speak of ideas. Jean speaks of the human condition. He weaves this garment of joy and depression, violence and peace and reads it all back to scripture, and applies it to the Incarnation by which the Word was made flesh to respond to the gutsiness of our lives.”

Vanier has a personal connection with Gannon. In 2004, he was presented with the University’s Ut Diligatis Invicem award, named for Archbishop John Mark Gannon’s personal motto: “That You May Love One Another.” It is hard to imagine a more deserving or more appropriate incarnation of that motto than Jean Vanier.