The roots of L'Arche International lie in the first L'Arche community, founded in 1964 in Trosly-Breuil, a small village north of Paris. Encouraged by Father Thomas Philippe, a Dominican priest who became his spiritual mentor, Jean Vanier invited two people with intellectual disabilities – Philippe Seux and Raphael Simi – to leave their institution and come and live with him in a small house in Trosly-Breuil, which he named "L’Arche."
The small community grew fast, soon welcoming new people with an intellectual disability and young people from around the world to share their lives. Unforeseen by Jean, it did not take long for people to decide to create new L'Arche communities in their own countries. And so 1969 saw the creation of the first home in near Toronto, Canada, called "Daybreak," the first of many later communities in North America. In the 1970’s, the vision of L'Arche also inspired people to found L'Arche in India, the Ivory Coast and Honduras.
This expansion meant that L'Arche needed to open up to a wide variety of cultures, languages, and social backgrounds. Although founded in the Catholic tradition, L'Arche communities rapidly become ecumenical or interreligious, finding their point of unity in a common set of human values. Open and engaged in the world, they seek to be a sign of hope and solidarity.
The unexpected expansion of L'Arche on five continents revealed the need for proper structures in order to maintain the unity of L'Arche, and accordingly an International Board was established.
In 2014, L'Arche, with 145 communities in over 40 countries on five continents, is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
Jean Vanier , Founder of L'Arche
Jean Vanier was born on September 10, 1928, in Geneva, Switzerland, where his father , General Georges Vanier was a diplomat. He was educated for the most part in England. At the beginning the Second World War, the whole family including Jean, his sister and three brothers moved back to Canada.
After two years, Jean, aged only 13, decided to enter the Royal Naval College in England. Aged just 16, while helping his mother in her work with the Red Cross, he witnessed the return of former concentration camp victims to Paris. In 1945, Jean began his career as an officer in the Royal Navy. But despite a promising career in the Navy, Jean found himself spending more and more time in prayer, reflecting on God’s call. Eventually, In 1950, he resigned from the Navy in order to study philosophy and theology at the Institut Catholique in Paris. It was here that he met Father Thomas Philippe, the Dominican priest and professor who would become his spiritual mentor and friend.
In 1963, after publishing his doctoral thesis on Aristotle, Jean returned to Canada to teach at the University of Toronto. But once again, he decided to leave a promising career, quitting his job to join Father Thomas, by now chaplain to a small institution for people with intellectual disabilities, called “Le Val Fleuri", in the village of Trosly-Breuil. In 1964, Jean took the decision to move to Trosly and, buying a small house, invited three people with an intellectual disability to join him. One of the men, Dany, left quickly, but Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux decided to stay. Jean named their house "L'Arche," a reference to Noah's Ark – a symbol both of security and of renewal.
Very involved in the rapid growth of L'Arche Trosly, Jean also began giving lectures and holding retreats around the world. In 1968, after a retreat in Ontario, he founded "Faith and Sharing," communities created to meet and pray together each month. Three years later, along with Marie- Hélène Mathieu, Jean Vanier created "Faith and Light," which was born out of a pilgrimage to Lourdes in France, for 12,000 people with and without intellectual disabilities, their friends and parents. At least once a month, this movement brings together groups of 15 to 40 people (children, teenagers or adults with intellectual disabilities, their families, friends) for a meeting of friendship, sharing, prayer and celebration. Jean Vanier is also the founder of "Intercordia," an organisation that encourages college students to live an inter-cultural experience among the poor and marginalized people in developing countries.
Jean Vanier has received numerous awards including the French "Légion d'Honneur," the "Companion of the Order of Canada," the "Rabbi Gunther Plaut Humanitarian Award" in 2001 and the Prize of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, as well as "Blessed are the peace makers" in 2006, and the “Pacem in Terris” award in 2013.
Jean Vanier continues to give lectures and conduct retreats, mainly in his home community in Trosly. His books have been translated into 29 languages.
Father Thomas Philippe, spiritual mentor of Jean Vanier
Born on March 18, 1905 in Cysoin, near Lille in France, Father Thomas Philippe grew up in a family of 12 children, seven of whom followed a call to the religious life. On celebrating 60 years as a Dominican, he said, "my priestly vocation dates from the day of my first communion, when I was only six years old." Carefully nurturing this early desire, he joined the Domincans at 18, making his perpetual vows the following year. He was ordained on July 25, 1929.
Father Thomas Philippe taught theology in the Dominican college in Rome until the beginning of the war in 1940. In 1946, he gathered together a group of students to give them theological and spiritual training in a community called the "Eau Vive" in Paris. It was here that the young Jean Vanier first met Father Thomas, in 1950, when he joined the community.
Later, Father Thomas described how in 1963, "after many different ministries and trials of all sorts, God led me to Trosly to be with people with intellectual disabilities: by that, I mean those who are poor in their head and perhaps their body, as well, but have such a deep love for Jesus." It was to this institution, "Le Val Fleuri," in Trosly-Breuil, home to 30 people with intellectual disabilities, that Father Thomas invited Jean Vanier, encouraging him to do something. Inspired by these words, Jean founded L'Arche the following year, in 1964.
In 1971, Father Thomas created "La Ferme,” a place of prayer and hospitality at the heart of the L'Arche community, where each day he celebrated the Eucharist. He offered counsel and support to the members of L'Arche and all others seeking his support. In his own words, "after 60 years of priesthood, I am touched to be learning from [people with a disability] how to be an apostle of "Sacred preaching," the way of preaching that goes directly from one heart to another."
Almost up to the time of his death on February 4, 1993, Père Thomas remained the priest of L'Arche Trosly. He is now buried near the chapel at La Ferme inTrosly-Breuil.
(The quotations are taken from a talk given on the 60th anniversary of his priesthood, available on the website of La Maison Thomas Philippe)
Raphaël Simi , co-founder of L'Arche
Raphael was born in Marseille in 1928 but from 1931 spent his childhood in Paris with his parents, brother and sister. He contracted polio early on, and probably as well, a neurological disease that affected his vocal cords and left him hemiplegic. He was very pampered in his family, but on the death of his mother in 1962, he was placed in an institution.
He was not happy there: cut off from his environment and from his family, his world suddenly reduced to the four walls of the institution. However, he remained there until 1964, when, with Philippe Seux, he accepted the invitation of Jean Vanier to come to L'Arche. He worked at the workshop in Trosly and remained in contact with his brother and sister until their death.
With the growth of L'Arche Trosly, Raphael opted to go and live more peacefully in L'Arche “La Rose des Vents.” At that time, he was 60 years old. One of his daily jobs was to serve as community postman, taking letters to the home and workshop. He retired a few years later, but continued to perform little services for the community and attend the occupational workshop.
Raphael’s health deteriorated sharply towards the end of winter, in 2003 and he died the night of March 24 that year. In the words of George Durner, former director of the La Rose des Vents community: "As far as Raphael and others welcomed to La Rose des Vents were concerned, I was invited just to be there. [...] They helped me realize that I was always a person who was valuable and lovable, even when I couldn’t do anything; [...] of the two of us, I was always the one who was more autonomous, but Raphael was the stronger one. And he knew it."
Philippe Seux , co-founder of L'Arche
Philippe Seux was born in Casablanca, Morocco, in 1941. The intellectual scars left by the encephalitis he contracted aged two meant that normal schooling was ruled out. At 20 years old, he and his sick mother returned to France to seek treatment there. Two years later, she died in hospital, an event that Raphael was not informed about.
Philippe was then placed in an institution in the Paris area, for people with an intellectual disability, but he was very unhappy there. The following year, in 1964, he met Jean Vanier. At Jean's invitation, Philippe moved to L'Arche on August 4, 1964 with Raphaël Simi. After a few weeks, he began working at the workshop at Trosly-Breuil. Later, he described those early days: "When I came to L’Arche, there was no electricity, nothing. For lighting, we used candles. It was fun! No loos, no showers... I was so happy that I was beside myself with joy. I thought, "phewee!”. Before [coming to L'Arche], I didn’t really have a life: all day spent in a dayroom, just sitting. You couldn’t do anything, no going out, we were so bored - no occupation, nothing. It drove me to tears even. I was not at home there at all. Gradually, things sorted themselves out at L'Arche."
After 11 years, L'Arche had grown: many similar communities had sprung up. In 1975, the team suggested to Philippe that he move to live in a house called “Isba” which was just getting started in Compiegne. He carried on going the workshop in Trosly village for the next ten years, while enjoying the benefits of living in the city.
In 1987, Philippe joined the workshop called "Au Moulin" in Compiegne. These days, his health has deteriorated and he depends more on others, but in spite of it all, he is still able to show much tenderness and humor.