History of L’Arche
“L’Arche was not my project, but God’s.”
In 1964 a young man by the name Jean Vanier visited asylums throughout France where people with intellectual disabilities were sent to spend their days hidden away from society. Jean was overwhelmed by what he saw and the atmosphere of sadness within the concrete walls where men walked in circles.
Jean’s spiritual mentors suggested he do “something.” That something was to ask friends and family to help him purchase a small, run-down home in Trosly-Breuil, France, so he could invite Raphaël Simi and Philippe Seux to move out of an institution to live with him.
“What was clear … from the very beginning was the aspect of “living with” people who have [intellectual disabilities], a desire to create family with them.”
Jean asked his friend Jacqueline d’Halluin to help him come up with a name for this community where people with and without intellectual disabilities would live together and create a new kind of family. She suggested L’Arche, which means “the ark” in French (in English, it is pronounced as rhyming with marsh).
Only later did Jean realize the symbolism of the word. The story of a boat of salvation for God’s people appears in Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu scripture as well as they mythology of other early cultures, and aptly symbolizes a place where people can find safety from life’s raging storms.
L’Arche began to grow in France, and in 1968 Jean was invited to give a retreat in Canada. He agreed, and a group of religious and lay people gathered together for eight days. Following the retreat, Sr. Rosemarie Donovan, the superior of Our Lady’s Missionaries, offered L’Arche their former novitiate house in Richmond Hill, just north of Toronto. Steve and Ann Newroth began L’Arche Daybreak in October 1969. (Later, priest and theologian Henri Nouwen would spend the last ten years of his life at L’Arche Daybreak and be profoundly transformed by life with people who have disabilities.)
“L’Arche’s first seeds were planted in the earth of the Roman Catholic Church. Through God’s grace, others seeds were planted in other soils. … L’Arche became ecumenical when it welcomed men and women with [disabilities] who belonged to different denominations and different religions.”
In 1970, L’Arche was born in India. The board and the people with disabilities who were welcomed came from both Christian and Hindu backgrounds. It was clear that while the spirit of L’Arche would be the same, it would be lived out in diverse cultural and religious traditions.
Jean continued to offer retreats, and often people who attended the retreats were inspired to start new communities across North America. In 1972, Fr. George Strohmeyer and Sr. Barbara Karznia helped found L’Arche Erie (Pennsylvania), the first community in the United States. Two years later Janice Risse helped begin L’Arche Mobile (Alabama) and Sister Marjorie Wisor started L’Arche Clinton (Iowa). Pat Wehner brought L’Arche to Cleveland in 1975.
Today, there are 147 communities worldwide, including 18 in the United States. The communities consist of approximately 8,000 members with and without intellectual disabilities who share their lives together in homes and workplaces.
For a person with intellectual disabilities, L’Arche may be a place to live independently, or in a household with others, and/or a place of work through daytime programs and activities. At all times, it is a place of support and guidance that adapts as well as possible to the needs of each individual.
For employees and volunteers, L’Arche is a place of work that is oriented towards accompanying and supporting people with intellectual disabilities. Such support shows itself in the simple gestures of everyday life at home or in the workplace. For those living in the community household, L’Arche is also their home.
“Without this spiritual dimension and growth in holiness, L’Arche could become simply another group home. It would lose what makes it unique.”
All L’Arche communities are communities of faith that have a mission to work for unity. Some communities are one religion, others are inter-denominational or inter-faith. Members are encouraged to grow in their spiritual journeys, and people who are not affiliated with a particular religious tradition are also welcomed and respected in their freedom of conscience.
Jean still lives in Trosly and is part of the life of the L’Arche community there. He has written 30 books, and his beautifully penned thoughts about living in community continue to inspire people who are seeking to live gently, love fully, and give themselves freely.
In 2015, he was awarded the Templeton Prize, one of the world’s largest annual awards given to an individual and honors a living person who has made exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.
Quotes on this page are all taken from An Ark for the Poor: The Story of L’Arche by Jean Vanier.