Raphaël Simi and Philippe Seux had no family. Both men lived in a hospital where at the time many people with learning disabilities were housed. It was 1964 – the year that Jean Vanier invited these two to live with him in a small house that he had just bought outside of Paris, in a village Trosly-Breuil.
The house had no plumbing and no electricity. Though Vanier didn’t know it at the time, that house would become the first L’Arche house.
Today there are 150 L’Arche communities in 38 countries, including 32 in Canada.
Jean Vanier, Canadian Catholic philosopher, theologian and founder of L’Arche died on May 7, 2019.
The funeral takes place on May 16, and that’s where Pictou County’s reverend Donna Tourneur is headed as a church representative from North America.
“There was an email in my inbox and for a while I thought it was spam or something from a newsletter that I would get to eventually,” said Tourneur the day before her flight. “Then I looked at it and it was a personal invitation.”
Tourneur joins four other Church Leaders from France, England and Ireland to attend Vanier’s funeral in Trosley-Breuil, a village north of Paris. Together, these four church leaders are chosen by L’Arche International as a very intentional way of keeping L’Arche in dialogue with Catholic churches around the world.
Tourneur’s personal involvement with L’Arche began when she served in Whycocomah as part of her master of divinity practicum. She would spend one day out of every week for a total of eight months with the L’Arche Caper Club day program.
It was during this period where Tourneur says she first realized the true value of the L’Arche organization.
“I realized that the work wasn’t about me creating a project that we could do together,” said Tourneur. “It was learning how to be in a relationship. And it took a bit of being comfortable with who they are and who I am with them. What are my own inhibitions? Every time I’m with L’Arche I have to learn it again. It’s not about what you produce, it’s about how you are in a relationship.”
Two years ago, Tourneur received her first assignment as a church leader with L’Arche International. She was immersed in the world of L’Arche for six days and with 500 delegates in the city of Belfast, Ireland.
“It was kind of idyllic the way (Vanier) founded the organization,” said Tourneur. “He took these two men and brought them to live with him in a house in Trosley. No plumbing. No electricity. He learned something about care and vulnerability. He said lots of times in the process of that he became more aware of his own capacity and need for love.”
And where L’Arche did begin as a Catholic organization, it’s expansion across national borders has transformed it into an interfaith organization.
“He makes the point that the universal language of faith is love,” said Tourneur.