One way L'Arche gives dignity to its handicapped core members is through celebration. Here, Jeff Fidlak and other members listen as Christine MacIsaac offers musical leadership.

WCR PHOTO | CHRIS MILLER

One way L'Arche gives dignity to its handicapped core members is through celebration. Here, Jeff Fidlak and other members listen as Christine MacIsaac offers musical leadership.

May 12, 2014
CHRIS MILLER
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

Visiting people with intellectual disabilities in institutions in the early 1960s, Canadian philosopher Jean Vanier was profoundly disturbed.

Cast away from mainstream society and abandoned to institutional life, the handicapped people were lonely and their lives seemed aimless.

In 1964, Vanier responded by taking Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux into his rundown home in Trosly-Breuil, France. His home was named L'Arche, or The Ark.

Other townsfolk saw what Vanier was doing for people with developmental disabilities, and they soon wanted to do the same.

Within a few years, Vanier's act of solidarity with two handicapped men had become a worldwide movement. Now, half a century later, thousands of people have been touched by L'Arche and it is time to celebrate.

"Jean Vanier expanded L'Arche into Canada and India to show that it is of all faiths," said Sister Pat Desnoyers, community leader for L'Arche Edmonton.

"Right now, it is interfaith right around the world. Some countries, like Syria, could not open a L'Arche community that is Christian, and it was clear that it needed to be a Muslim community."

When they enter L'Arche many live-in assistants and core members face questions of faith

WCR PHOTO | CHRIS MILLER

When they enter L'Arche many live-in assistants and core members face questions of faith

Vanier visited Sherwood Park in 1971, and led a retreat at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish. He asked the question, "Would anyone like to start L'Arche here?" The result was the L'Arche Shalom community in Sherwood Park.

L'Arche Edmonton was formed in 1972, becoming only the second L'Arche community in Canada. There are four L'Arche houses in Edmonton (Heiwa, La Creche, Ted Bradshaw and Noah) and two in Sherwood Park (Shalom and Little Flower). Up to a dozen men and women of various cultural backgrounds live in one house. Some are core members – people with intellectual disabilities – and others are their live-in assistants.

Those with no church background – both core members and live-in assistants – after joining L'Arche often explore what spirituality and faith means to them. Faced with these questions, they will often commit to a church or denomination.

"The social inclusion we have for people is so different from the other service providers because we have regular weekly events. When there's a birthday, everybody is invited and there's a big party that goes on. We take people places and have activities with them, and go to festivals," said Desnoyers.

The mission of L'Arche is to make known the gifts of people with developmental disabilities revealed through mutually transforming relationships.

Le Tu Vuong is the drummer during a session of L'Arche's 'music therapy'

WCR PHOTO | CHRIS MILLER

Le Tu Vuong is the drummer during a session of L'Arche's 'music therapy'

"Here at L'Arche Edmonton, what's become clear is a lot of our people with disabilities have an incredible gift of welcome and hospitality. It's even been commented on by other L'Arche communities that come here," said Desnoyers, noting that those are gifts which do not diminish with age.

They seek to engage in their diverse cultures, working together to build a more human society.

"They are grounded in their homes, and are very happy. L'Arche believes in celebrations and there are lots of them throughout the year. These core members have such varying personalities, yet they all come together like brother and sister to celebrate together and get caught up with each other," said Debbie Weismiller, communications administrator for L'Arche Edmonton.

Today, there are 136 L'Arche communities worldwide. Many core members interact with each other via Facebook, Skype and other social media. Meanwhile, Vanier, age 85, continues to advocate and affirm the dignity of all people, regardless of ability.

"We are doing more and more outreach through our day program," said Desnoyers. "For example, we serve at Hope Mission and visit seniors' residences. Every Friday we have a hot lunch where we invite people we meet. The growth is deepening our sense of who we are as L'Arche."

The day program also provides opportunities to share life together through such activities as music therapy, arts and crafts and daily prayer. Other social functions are held throughout the year, including their annual Christmas pageant and Heritage Days.

Especially in L'Arche Edmonton's early days, children were sometimes literally abandoned on their doorstep. For instance, a woman named Patricia was with L'Arche for many years, essentially dropped off there by her family. Her mother and siblings never visited, and only stepped forward after her recent death.

"Patricia's family said it was much better if they let her go to this institution, and that she has her own life there. The understanding was that she's better if they don't continue to be her family," said Desnoyers.

Weismiller and her husband took a different approach. Their son has Down syndrome. The couple researched what they could do to help their son.

"At the hospital we asked for some information about Down syndrome. They brought us this old, antiquated textbook, and the first thing we read about was where to institutionalize your child. So we've come a long way since that time.

CNS PHOTO | NANCY WIECHEC

L'Arche founder Jean Vanier

"Today, most people wouldn't consider any other option than keeping their children – and not warehousing them," said Weismiller.

WELCOMING SPIRIT

All of the L'Arche homes have a strong welcoming spirit, and a family-like atmosphere. They enjoy the simple things with extraordinary love, whether preparing or eating meals together, doing household chores, going for walks, or praying together. The residents lead typical lives, going to the shopping mall or church, and perhaps watching TV in the evening.

To celebrate the 50th worldwide anniversary of L'Arche, several events are planned locally. As a pre-celebration to generate interest in the 50th anniversary, there will be an outdoor festival June 27 featuring a barbecue, children's games and music.

The 50th anniversary gala is set for Sept. 20 at the German Cultural Canadian Club. The gala will feature a dinner, dance, silent auction and presentations about the organization. Expectations are for more than 250 people at the celebration.

On Oct. 4, all L'Arche communities across Western Canada will have a day of prayer.

PART-TIME, FULL-TIME

Many L'Arche assistants are local, part-time volunteers. They help out with meals or various programs. Most live-in assistants come from other places around the world. In order to recruit more local assistants, L'Arche Edmonton goes to the University of Alberta, The King's College, churches, job fairs and pastoral centres.

"People without disabilities who live in the homes, they are not just called to a job. It's not a 9 to 5 job and then you go home. It's really about a lifestyle that you're living," said Desnoyers.

L'Arche Edmonton's greatest need, beyond finding live-in workers, is keeping up with home, maintenance and material costs.

"It's like any family, except we have six houses and five or six vans. There's a constant revolving door of what needs to be repaired or replaced," said Weismiller.