L’Arche 60 years on


In the last week of May, people came from all over the world to Ste Anne d’Auray in Brittany in France to mark the 60th anniversary of L’Arche.

It all began in a very small way. The vision of Jean Vanier was that the new community he founded in the village of Trosly would be of such a size that everyone could fit into an old Renault 4, with enough room for luggage! Today, L’Arche is found in 37 countries on 5 continents and comprises over 150 communities and almost 30 projects. 60 years on, it would take a very large fleet of Renault buses to transport everyone in L’Arche and their luggage!

Inevitably a lot of things have changed in those six decades, and in February 2020 we had the shocking revelations that Jean Vanier had sexually abused women in the context of spiritual direction. This could have led to splits in the worldwide federation of L’Arche, or worse, but the way the organisation dealt with the revelations, and at every level, was excellent. There was complete transparency with no hint whatever of any cover-up; a thorough, independent enquiry was carried out; and community members, with and without disabilities, were given opportunities to express their feelings about what had happened. In Ireland, as elsewhere, our communities are as strong as ever, notwithstanding the perennial challenges of finding money and people, and responding well and effectively to both regulations and the changing needs of community members.

A significant change is that in a social care environment that has strict regulations to adhere to, and in a culture where more and more people are turning away from the institutional Church, it’s much harder now to find space for the ‘intentional faith community’ element of L’Arche. On this point, I take heart in the words of Jane Barclay, a much-loved core member in L’Arche Kent, where I was a member for many years. When I made my initial visit to Kent in 1988 I had been deeply moved by the communal time of prayer after the evening meal and in particular by the words of Jane, who prayed for me and for several others. I was also impressed that such a time of prayer was taking place every evening, in addition to various other regular religious liturgies. At a certain point in the noughties, by which time there was prayer in the houses perhaps once a week, Jane said in our ‘faith life’ forum, “We don’t pray much anymore but there’s a lot of kindness.”

I experience much kindness in our communities, and I am inspired by our new L’Arche Ireland mandate which will inform and guide our next period of development, until 2028. The mandate begins with the words of one of the core members, ‘Come on, we’re going,’ and it reflects the key themes that emerged from the process of consultation that took place in the Cork, Dublin and Kilkenny communities in 2023:

‘Fostering a community environment where people feel secure and at home.’

‘Claiming and deepening our Christian roots and ethos, whilst remaining open to all religious or non-religious traditions.’

‘Fostering an environment that responds to the changing needs of the members.’

‘Developing and deepening mutually enriching relationships with the environment.’

In the week of the international meeting in Brittany I was visiting L’Arche Cork and reflecting on how else L’Arche might have changed in the 60 years since its inception, for change is natural and necessary in any organisation. At the end of a busy day of meeting people, I was having a meal in one of the houses. There we were, a diverse group of people sitting round the table sharing food and fellowship: people from different countries, young and old, people with and without disabilities. The quiche and salad were delicious, the conversation was lively and with everyone included in it, and a couple of people told excitedly how they were going on retreat the following week, whilst others spoke of their forthcoming trip to France. There was amusement and a little gentle teasing as a lovely young French woman tried to pronounce the word ‘relaxation!’ Then this same woman asked if I’d visited many L’Arche communities around the world and whether they were very different from each other. I mentioned a visit to L’Arche in Poland in 1989. I explained how I’d sat there at the meal table not understanding a word of what people were saying but feeling just as at home as I was feeling in that house in Cork 35 years later. In some essential respects not much has changed at all in 60 years! And yes, as Jane Barclay remarked, there’s still a lot of kindness.

As I visit the communities in Ireland I see again and again how the traditional L’Arche values of welcome, inclusion, hospitality and celebration are alive and well in houses and day services; and at the same time I have been reassured to see the great work that is being done to ensure compliance in a highly regulated environment. I am grateful to all those, paid and unpaid, who make our L’Arche communities such vibrant, joyful and safe places. And may our communities continue to enable people to live their best lives, to allow mutually-transforming relationships to flourish, and where we can also respond well and creatively to regulation and to changing needs.

60 years on from that first group of people, with and without disabilities, travelling round in a Renault 4, and building community together, may we carry on being a little sign of hope in our troubled and divided world.

Eddie Gilmore