In 1964, a man from Canada was living in France. At the time, his father was Canada’s Governor General, carrying out the duties of Head of State on behalf of the Queen of England – the highest ceremonial role in the land. This son had left a promising military career following service in the Second World War and studied philosophy in Europe while deepening his commitment to religious faith. Had this been a decade later, his biography might say he was on a quest to “find himself.”
That man, then 35, connected to the French village of Trosly-Breuil via a priest who was chaplain at a small institution there for men with intellectual disabilities. The more our Canadian man learned about how such men and women lived in institutions at that time, the more distressed he became. He decided there might be another way. From Our History – L’Arche Canada: “Jean Vanier invited two men with developmental disabilities, Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux, to live with him in a small house … He named their house ‘L’Arche,’ after Noah’s Ark.”
From that personal commitment has grown an international movement – 147 L’Arche communities in 35 countries. The first outside France was in Canada, which has 29 L’Arche communities spread from Cape Breton in the east to Vancouver Island in the west.
While core principles remain the same, these communities evolved over the decades. Core to L’Arche is the commitment to give those with intellectual disabilities a home, not just a place to live. In the beginning, L’Arche communities copied Vanier’s model, creating homes shared by those with and without disabilities. In the early days, supporters volunteered to live in but now there are also paid staff and government funding. L’Arche today provides day programs and supports for people living independently in addition to shared living in group homes.
I first learned about L’Arche when, as a religion reporter, I discovered that the mother of a church administrator I knew was a L’Arche volunteer in the Ontario city of Stratford. He made introductions and I soon had an invitation to write a story about the community, which spread over three large houses and a small dorm-style residence attached to a Catholic church. This wasn’t to be a one-hour drop-by. Over the course of a two days, we shared meals, washed dishes, played games, attended a dance at the Legion Hall, and even took a bus trip to another city where several Ontario L’Arche communities gathered for an event.
The grinning, hugging fellow in the picture took a shine to me. He was one of the more verbal residents (some were not able to speak) and made me his preferred dance partner. In a quiet moment while he was busy elsewhere, one of the staff told me the fellow’s history and how different he was now, after living at L’Arche. Over those two days, I wept and I laughed – sometimes at the same time.
“L’Arche encourages people toward mutually transformative relationships, where those who help are transformed by those they encounter,” says the citation from the Templeton Prize given to Vanier in 2015. “Vanier discovered that those people who society typically considers the weakest enable the strong to recognize and welcome their own vulnerability.”
Vanier, now approaching his 90th birthday, continues to live in a L’Arche community in France. He may just well have the biggest heart on the planet.
“Love doesn’t mean doing extraordinary or heroic things,” he once wrote. “It means knowing how to do ordinary things with tenderness.”
Photo: Morris Lamont, The London Free Press