Canada is home to 29 L’Arche communities. L’Arche is marking its 50th year in 2014. Photo by Michael Swan

L’Arche turning 50 this year

By 
  • April 19, 2014

For 50 years, L’Arche has been a community and a school of life. It has been taking in developmentally disabled adults, but not simply as an alternative to the old asylums where people with Down’s syndrome and similar problems used to disappear. The L’Arche model is an alternative to any society that has no room for people who can’t conform to expectations.

L’Arche began in 1964 when Canadian philosopher Jean Vanier took Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux to live with him in a rundown old house in Trosly- Breuil, France. Simi and Seux were adult men condemned to life as inmates inside a grim institution until Vanier, under the inspiration of Dominican Father Thomas Phillippe, made the “irreversible” decision to assume care for the two men for the rest of their lives.

The international Catholic lay movement that grew out of Vanier’s vision kicked off its Jubilee Year by launching a new annual event Jan. 1 called 24 Hours For World Peace. Though the event started with a single day dedicated to peace it continues year-round with awards presented to peacemakers.

In Canada, L’Arche is marking the 50th anniversary by trying to teach more people about the L’Arche ideal of community life. Canada’s 29 L’Arche communities are inviting people to connect with them through a new web site, www.discoverwith.ca.

In a half-century a lot has changed in the world of the developmentally disabled, L’Arche spokesman John O’Donnell told The Catholic Register. Where L’Arche was once rescuing disabled adults from lives in the cold hallways of asylums, those asylums have largely disappeared or transformed into something much more like L’Arche.

“Now where the real pressure points are is in families,” said O’Donnell.

Parents who want to see their adult children move on to a normal and more adult life turn to L’Arche.

“Our goal is to welcome people and help them to develop into the kind of people God intended for them to be,” O’Donnell said. “If that means living in community until you die, we’re there for them.”

L’Arche Canada is the second oldest and second largest branch of the movement after the founding network in France. With seven communities in Western Canada, nine in Ontario, eight in Quebec, five in the Atlantic provinces plus another two projects out east that might yet become full-fledged L’Arche communities, L’Arche Canada represents 21 per cent of the international movement, compared to 22 per cent for L’Arche France.

L’Arche has been in Canada since 1969, when L’Arche Daybreak was established in Richmond Hill, Ont. Daybreak was the first L’Arche community established outside of Trosly, France.

There are 749 core members of L’Arche communities in Canada. The movement refers to the disabled and mostly permanent members of its communities as core members. Those core members are aided and accompanied by 357 live-in assistants and another 114 who live near to the community and help either full-time or part-time. The assistants and core members are fleshed out by 380 volunteers across the country and 259 professional staff.

The world outside of L’Arche can’t make the disabled disappear into asylums any more. But it has discovered another way of making at least some developmentally disabled people disappear. Early detection of Down’s syndrome during pregnancy is leading to abortions.

The desire to eliminate every imperfection from our communities is impoverishing society, O’Donnell said.

“We’re running the risk of losing sight of what it means to be a human being. The simple, reductionist decision making that goes on, that places value on some life and marginalizes or wants to eliminate other life — other human beings — to us, it’s a really serious matter,” he said. “One that we’re trying to counter as much as we can by proposing rather than opposing.”

Where L’Arche once proposed an alternative to institutionalization, 50 years later it proposes an alternative to elimination. It’s an alternative that relies upon a human capacity for peace and welcome.

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