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Monday July 28, 2014

Doctor taught lessons in dying and healing

She lived her life among the terminally ill and the mentally disabled while touting values of spirituality and friendship

Special to The Globe and Mail

Continued from Page 2

Balfour Mount, a Canadian cancer surgeon, visited St. Christopher's in 1973 and asked Dr. Vanier if he might accompany her on rounds. To his astonishment she "blushed and apologetically responded that she would not be comfortable with that, adding, 'I wouldn't know what to say.' "Later that afternoon, as he made his way through the wards, he saw Dr. Vanier sitting at the bedside of an elderly patient.

"She was bent low ... gently holding the woman's hand; her right ear was discreetly at the woman's mouth," Dr. Mount wrote in an e-mail message, describing a "deep, if near-wordless, conversation" that "was a moment of intimacy, a moment of healing" for both patient and doctor.

It was a lesson in dying and healing that he took back with him to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, where he subsequently established the first palliative care unit in a Canadian hospital.

A devout Roman Catholic, Dr. Vanier became troubled that the shared life at l'Arche, which now has a half-dozen communities in England, didn't include a celebration of the Eucharist for non-Catholics. L'Arche welcomes people of all faiths and none, but inevitably they go in different directions for religious services.

This separation at what she considered the heart of communal living - a celebration of religious faith - led her to join the ecumenical movement.

After she retired in 1988, she settled into l'Arche Lambeth on London's South Bank, and wrote extensively on ecumenical and interfaith issues, including the short books, Nick, Man of the Heart, a spiritual biography of her friend, Nick Elleker, a disabled Anglican member of l'Arche Lambeth, and One Bread, One Body: The Ecumenical Experience of l'Arche.

Early in June, as l'Arche U.K. was preparing to celebrate its 40th anniversary in Canterbury Cathedral, Dr. Vanier wrote a letter to the organizers, saying, "I remain deeply grateful for all that l'Arche continues to be for me and for so many others."

That evening she had a serious fall and was taken to St. Thomas' Hospital, where she had been a trainee doctor half a century earlier. She died a week later.

After the exquisite ecumenical symmetry of her requiem mass in Canterbury Cathedral, she was buried in the churchyard of St. Nicholas, Barfrestone, close to the first English l'Arche community.

Dr. Vanier was predeceased by her brothers Georges and Bernard and leaves her brothers Jean and Michel, and a host of friends and admirers.

Sandra Martin's book, Great Canadian Lives: A Cultural History of Modern Canada through the Art of the Obit, has just been released in paperback by House of Anansi Press.

Associated Graphic

Thérèse Vanier with her brother Jean, the founder of l'Arche, a network of 146 ecumenical communities for the mentally disabled in 35 countries on five continents.

Dr. Vanier studied medicine first at the Sorbonne, then at Girton College, Cambridge, and then did clinical training at St. Thomas' Hospital in London, where she became the first female consultant in hematology.

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