Thérèse Vanier

by Ann Shearer, DLT, £12.99

Thérèse Vanier, who died in 2014, is one of those exceptional Catholics – like Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement in America, and Catherine de Hueck Doherty of Madonna House in Canada – who gloriously lived their vocation as lay women in the Church.

As the sister of Jean Vanier, co-founder of L’Arche communities for those with learning disabilities, Thérèse used her superb organisational skills and gift for empathy to help set up the first L’Arche home in Britain in 1974. This book, edited by a friend, includes reflections by 40 contributors who knew Thérèse in her various roles: as a senior lecturer in haematology at St Thomas’s Hospital (a position she resigned in 1972 to help found L’Arche UK); as a palliative care specialist at St Christopher’s Hospice between 1972 and 1988; and as someone who felt deeply the pain of disunity among Christians.

Dr Michael Kearney, who trained in palliative care under her guidance, spoke for all the contributors when he referred to “her quiet dignity … her beautiful presence, her profound respect for everyone she met, her capacity for deep listening”. For Jim Cargin, a long-term member of L’Arche, it was her practical wisdom in discerning “the difference between real hope and fanciful illusion … she would say ‘nothing is gained by pretending things are better than they really are.’ ”

There are memories of Thérèse at the first L’Arche community in Kent, such as “10 o’clock at night after a busy day, Thérèse in jeans, cigarette at her lips, quietly mopping the floor”, and many tributes to her championship of the spiritual and emotional needs of L’Arche assistants, which could be overlooked when caring for core community members. Thérèse died as L’Arche UK was celebrating its 40th anniversary. She had sent a message to be read at the service of thanksgiving in which “she reiterated her own major preoccupations: that L’Arche should combine competence with tenderness and compassion, and offer the support to long-term assistants that made this possible.”

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