Our community's history in Chicago began in the early 1980s. A few people around Chicago, including members of the Sonshine Group at Reba Place Church in Evanston, IL, were drawn to the L'Arche charism and began to hold Faith and Sharing Retreats, which are animated by the spirit of L'Arche and involve people with and without disabilities. They met bi-monthly to share meals and faith.
In 1987, Jean Vanier, the Founder of L'Arche International, led a Faith and Sharing retreat at Mundelein Seminary near Chicago. The retreat brought together a small group, some of whom were already familiar with Vanier and L'Arche. This ecumenical group hoped to found a L'Arche Community in Chicago. In 1993, they began to meet regularly for prayer, discernment and discussion. Some of them had experience as assistants in other L'Arche communities. Gerry McAuliffe, still a faithful supporter and friend today, had spent eight years with L'Arche founder Jean Vanier in the early days of the first community in Trosly, France. Martha and Dale Cooper had lived as assistants in the L'Arche community in Calgary, Canada. Gen Connor just returned from 5 years as House Responsible in L'Arche Victoria, BC.
The process of founding a L'Arche community is a dialogical one between the local group and L'Arche leadership. At that time, L'Arche North America was configured into Western US/Canada and Eastern US/Canada zones and within those zones, into smaller regions. Our founding group began talks with the Western US/Canada Zone Coordinator. When the US and Canada were reconfigured into national zones, the conversation continued with the new US Zone. The L'Arche community in Clinton, IA also provided support.
This informal group of friends incorporated as Friends of L'Arche, a not-for-profit corporation in March 1995. In January of 1998, they welcomed Maria Zeimen, OSF as the founding director. For two years, Maria and the ten board members laid the groundwork for the founding of the new community. This included meeting with persons interested in being founding assistants, initiating relationships with potential core members, obtaining a Community Integrated Living Arrangement (CILA) license from the state of Illinois, establishing connections with other service providers, civic groups, churches and church groups, increasing the number of donors, obtaining limited start-up funds, working with volunteers, connecting with people in the area who had lived in L'Arche communities, hosting monthly dinners with Sonshine group members, and publishing a newsletter.
In 1999, Jean Vanier came once more to Chicago. He met with the founding board and spoke at Holy Name Cathedral. An article about Jean and the L'Arche community in progress appeared in the Chicago Tribune. The article touched the heart of the owner of what is now our first home. Jean had told the young community very early on that God would lead it to the house, so that it would know where in this large city the community was meant to be. He was right. The owner of the house offered it rent-free for one year with the option to buy at the end of that year.
Elbert Lott worked as a maintenance man at Esperanza Community Services. Florence Lange also worked at Esperanza. When she learned from a co-worker about the beginning of L'Arche in Chicago, she recognized Elbert as someone with the L'Arche spirit. Elbert tells, with great animation, how he made his choice for L'Arche. Despite his love for bowling and his strong performance for his team, he opted to miss a tournament match to check out L'Arche. He made his choice (his team won, anyway) and was welcomed as the founding core member in June 2000 into the home our community chose to call Angel Home. He has more than lived up to his founding identity and remains the "father of the house." Jean and Michael came in November 2000. As happens sometimes, the fit was not right for Michael, who did not stay.
David and Laura came as founding assistants. Christianne came in April 2001 as the third core member. Tim came the next year, and Chris found us in 2005. In 2009 Mike and Ronnie, affectionally called "Granny," joined our community as we opened our second home named Interfaith House in memory of our dear friend Mardy Bloch's husband Wally, who had a deep passion for interfaith relationships. Our community mourned the loss of Granny only six months later when she succumbed to a brief battle with cancer.
Two years later, in July 2011, we welcomed Elisha who has blessed us with his deep Jewish faith. And in 2012, we welcomed Noah as the eighth core member of L'Arche Chicago. In October 2014 we purchased a new home in nearby Forest Park to replace Interfaith House. We blessed and dedicated this new home as "Peace Home" on January 25, 2015 in loving memory of longtime community friend Peg O'Brien, a true champion of peace. Today Mike, Jean, Noah, and Elisha call Peace House home.
In March 2016, L'Arche Chicago bought a third home into which Tim, Elbert, and Chris moved. In the same month, L'Arche Chicago welcomed Anders and Dana as they moved into Angel House with Christianne.
Throughout this time until the present, a number of assistants came from different backgrounds to share a year or two or three of life with us. Each left a piece of him or herself in the community. Over the same time, our circle of faithful friends and supporters has continued to grow in numbers and dedication. Our core members and assistants have built strong and enduring relationships with the larger Oak Park/Chicago community, local faith communities, religious orders and student groups and other advocates and self-advocates within the larger disability rights movement, as well as with other L'Arche members at the regional, national, and International Federation level. Today we look forward to our future in the Oak Park community as we continue to welcome more core members and assistants.
L'Arche Chicago joins more than 146 other communities in 35 countries to form The International Federation of L'Arche. The communities encompass 5000 people with and without an intellectual disability, speaking more than 20 languages who share their lives in homes, workshops and day programs.
We are united by a common vision and a shared mission expressed in the official Charter of L’Arche. The Federation seeks to foster solidarity among communities, ensure unity in diversity, establish the conditions for membership, and to create conditions for trust, service, dialogue, and mutual support.
L’Arche Chicago is part of this International Federation of L’Arche Communities across the world. We join 17 other communities in the US, where the first community in the United States was founded in 1972 in Erie, Pennsylvania. Our region in L'Arche US includes communities in Clinton, IA, Kansas City, KS, Jacksonville, FL, Mobile, AL, St. Louis, MO, and Atlanta, GA.
L'Arche International has its roots in the foundation of the first L'Arche community in 1964 in Trosly-Breuil, a village north of Paris. Following the suggestion of his mentor Father Thomas Philippe, a Dominican priest, Jean Vanier, son of a former Governor General of Canada, decided to invite Raphaël Simi and Philippe Seux to live with him in a small house which he named L'Arche, the French word for the Ark.
In the 1960s, the rapidly growing community in Trosly attracted young people from all over the world who shared their everyday life with a growing number of people with an intellectual disability. Although not planned or foreseen by Jean Vanier, it was only a matter of time before others decided to draw on the vision of L'Arche and to create a L'Arche community in his hometown or country. As this organic growth continued and accelerated, L'Arche organized itself as an international federation.
Every L'Arche community offers people—regardless of intellectual level—a community of faith and mutual relationship where each one is encouraged to develop talents, to create home, to build friendships and quite simply, to make the most of life! L'Arche communities are also places of welcome and support for families and friends, volunteers and neighbors, churches and other social service groups. L'Arche is working actively to inspire social change through the example of the way we live daily life, our outreach and education programs and the testimony of core members, assistants (current and former), board members and friends who have experienced this vision and share it with enthusiasm. We hope you'll join us too!