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The Catholic New World

Founder Jean Vanier
L’Arche: Offering home, help and hope
CTU honoring Vanier as ‘peacemaker’

By Michelle Martin
Staff writer

When Jean Vanier visits Chicago May 3-4, he will be feted for his life’s work during a celebration at the Chicago Hilton and Towers.

But it is the following morning that he will meet those dearest to his heart: the core members and associates who live at Angel House, the first house of the L’Arche community in the Chicago area.

Vanier, a Canadian by birth, founded L’Arche (“The Ark”) in France more than 40 years ago. The movement brings together mentally disabled adults with those who share their homes. He will be honored at Catholic Theological Union’s annual “Blessed Are Peacemakers” dinner May 3.

The next morning, he will have breakfast at Angel House before its four core members go off to work. The core members are the adults with disabilities who live there. Three live-in associates help keep the house running, and the group has a wide circle of friends who help with everything from maintenance to marketing.

John Knoebel, executive director of L’Arche Chicago, said he hopes that Vanier’s visit will help jump-start progress towards a second L’Arche house for the Chicago area, since it was an earlier visit that led to the establishment of Angel House.

When Vanier spoke at Holy Name Cathedral in 1998, his words reached a woman who lived out of state but owned the building on Austin Boulevard that would become Angel House two years later. Vanier’s words inspired her to make it possible, Knoebel said.

“He’s returning to the house that he helped make possible,” Knobel said. “It’s interesting that he’s coming back at this point in our life cycle.”

While L’Arche is just at the beginning stages of trying to open a second house, the need is pressing, Knoebel said. A recent study found 17,000 adults with mental disabilities in the Chicago area with needs that are not being met.

Because L’Arche was founded to create homes, not institutions, it will take months to full up a new house once it is ready. Members usually start by coming to visit, sharing meals, and then making longer visits before deciding whether they want to move in.

“It is totally person-oriented,” Knoebel said. “We don’t make up their minds for them.”

L’Arche differs from most homes for disabled residents because it offers residents with disabilities and their associates equal status, he said.

“We live with the core members, not for them,” Knoebel said. “It’s everybody taking care of everybody else, like a really big family.”

And like any family, it must pay its bills. The operating cost for the existing L’Arche house is about $250,000 a year, and it is the only one of 17 L’Arche communities in the United States that is 100 percent privately funded.

“We need to bridge the gap between sustenance and growth to take the next step,” he said

For information about the “Blessed are the Peacemakers” CTU Trustee Dinner May 3, call (312) 753-5318.


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