A Winnipeg man whose life was changed forever by Jean Vanier vividly remembers one thing about meeting the founder of L'Arche in 1998.
"He was pretty tall," said Albert, who moved into one of the homes founded by the 6-6 Vanier, leaving the Manitoba Developmental Centre institution at age 30. Now 74, the resident of L'Arche — whose core members are identified publicly by first name only — said he doesn't like to talk about his time "in Portage."
At age 15, Albert was taken to the Portage la Prairie institution. It opened in 1890 as the Home for Incurables and once housed 1,200 residents, all living with disabilities. Now only 160 remain after many residents transitioned to homes in the community.
Today, Albert lives in a sprawling, sunny, family home in Transcona, with roommates and support. He plays the organ, creates art and has his own bedroom — painted a deep red at his request — he shares with his beloved Alvin and the Chipmunks and other stuffed animals. Albert's creative juices, his joy for living and a natural talent for making friends have flourished, said Jim Lapp, L'Arche's executive director, who's known him for 40 years.
L’Arche Winnipeg began in 1973, and is now made up of six houses and two apartments, where 27 members with a developmental disability have found a caring home, living with approximately 25 assistants.
Vanier died Tuesday in Paris, at the age of 90.
L'Arche describes itself as a community of people, young and old, married and single, from an array of cultural and religious backgrounds, "who choose to live faithful and life-giving relationships with those who have a developmental disability, affirming their place and importance in our society."
After becoming part of the community through L'Arche, Lapp said Albert lost the anger he carried from the institution. Now, he's paying the gift of peace forward, he said.
"People with disabilities teach us a lot," said Lapp. "The purpose of L'Arche is to make known the gifts of people with disabilities, their welcoming and their forgiveness. They know how to celebrate life."
Albert is now retired from jobs at WASO (Work and Social Opportunities) and L’Arche Tova Café on Regent Avenue West, where he was in his element greeting customers.
"I'm not shy," said Albert, who visits the popular breakfast and lunch spot at least once a week. In retirement, he's happy to play the Hammond organ at home or spend time in prayer or look out at the birds in the backyard with Patsy Zet, a friend and support worker who has known Albert for more than a decade.
His gentle presence and reminders that "You're going to be OK" affect the people around him in a big way, said Zet, who immigrated from Chile. "He teaches me not to be so afraid."
For example, Zet recalled a time when she felt homesick, missing her family, and excused herself from the room. Albert went to find her to offer reassurance. "He said, 'It's OK. We're your family.'"
It worked, said Zet, whose seen Albert sharing the sense of peace he's found in L'Arche with many people.
On Tuesday, when he was asked how he felt about the death of Vanier, Albert remained unfazed.
"He's in heaven," said Albert. "He was our founder."
Carol Sanders’ reporting on newcomers to Canada has made international headlines, earned national recognition but most importantly it’s shared the local stories of the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home.