Living L’Arche

By Ann Christenson, Comm ’90

Tracy was about the same age as Trish Glennon — young 20s — when Glennon met her. With her brown eyes and huge, expressive smile, Tracy could communicate what she wanted without saying a word.

Tracy liked all things feminine — dresses and makeup and painted fingernails. After getting dressed, the last step before proceeding with her day was a stop to look in the mirror. That moment, Glennon says, is when Tracy communicated her, perhaps, strongest message of joy. Tracy’s smile was the most eloquent of speeches. No one could mistake its meaning.

Glennon, Jour ’96, lived with Tracy, who was confined to a wheelchair, in a L’Arche community in Ontario called Daybreak. That was early in Glennon’s career as an assistant with this international network of communities in which individuals with and without intellectual disabilities live together.

“When I came to L’Arche,” Glennon recalls, “I had no experience working with the intellectually disabled. There’s something to be learned from the men and women of L’Arche. ‘Living with difference,’ founder Jean Vanier said. It wasn’t that he created nice homes. The mission is relationship, transformation and what happens to you, what you learn about yourself. It also forces you to look at anyone you perceive as different and challenge those perceptions.”

It began when Frenchman Jean Vanier returned to France after teaching in Canada and was horrified by the living conditions of disabled individuals. Vanier opened his house, called it L’Arche after Noah’s Ark, and lived with two developmentally disabled men from his French village.

Vanier’s interest in a shared-living model grew, and he spread the message further by traveling and speaking about what the community meant to him and to a growing number of people with and without disabilities. Vanier’s achievement in creating these communities earned the notice of the Templeton Foundation, which awarded him the 2015 Templeton Prize. Previous winners include Mother Teresa of Calcutta and the Dalai Lama.

Glennon’s experiences with L’Arche have kept her tethered off and mostly on to this organization for close to 20 years. It was simply the right fit for a young woman who was interested in stripping away the trappings of a material world. Glennon’s parents, she says, are people of deep religious faith who raised her to be “a person of compassion and acceptance.”

When she was a student at Marquette, Glennon didn’t feel pulled to a specific career. She began studies as a student in the Klingler College of Arts and Sciences and later moved to the journalism classrooms in Johnston Hall. The centering presence throughout, she says, was Campus Ministry, which filled her need to explore things in the way of service. “Without Marquette,” Glennon says, “I would not have found L’Arche.”

That encounter happened when Glennon attended a staff meeting for McCormick Hall resident assistants and met people involved in a Marquette initiative called Communities That Care. Buddy pairs from L’Arche communities all over North America came to campus to experience and share in a mutual exchange over a weekend.

“There was a rustle at the door,” Glennon remembers the moment clearly. “This woman, Linda, came in. She had this very ‘here I am’ personality, a welcoming, inviting spirit about her, which is kind of what L’Arche is, people being themselves and living out that mission.”

At Mass that same week, when the visitors spoke about their lives and faith, Glennon recalls feeling moved.

Glennon, Jour '96
Glennon, Jour ’96

Later in the school year, when Glennon was contemplating what service trip to take the week of spring break, somehow L’Arche made her list. A campus minister asked Glennon why she chose it. “I knew she would send me there,” Glennon says, her eyes smiling behind her narrow, face-defining eyeglass frames. “That week changed everything for me.”

Though the ministry experiences she had on campus underscored the “gap” between the needy and the comparatively entitled students, Glennon says that at L’Arche everything came together. “You live ‘with,’ do ‘with’ — everything is ‘with.’ The ‘feeling value in community’ made a difference for me,” she says.

Scrapping her original post-grad plans, Glennon told her parents she was going to live at L’Arche Canada, a decision she has never regretted and a destination from which she has never left beyond small stretches, such as during her graduate studies in pastoral ministry at Boston College. Glennon met her husband, Steve, in the community. They have three children and live close to Daybreak. Having a family, she says, has “helped me be a part of L’Arche long-term. I have been so lucky to have roles that allow me to live outside the community but still be part of it.”

And yet there have been moments of self-doubt, Glennon admits, stemming from the challenges inherent with living in community. Resident assistants do not have the ability to choose who they live with each year. The long days can be fatiguing. “The needs can be great and sometimes the resources few,” she explains. “There is a fragility that exists in every L’Arche community.”

This organization that celebrates diversity and the pivotal role of adapting to cultures has 147 communities in 35 countries. Stephen Blaha, assistant director of Campus Ministry, lived in a L’Arche community in Cork, Ireland, in the late 1990s. “The great challenge that L’Arche offers,” says Blaha, “is coming face to face with all the brokenness, shortcomings and demons in all of us. Core members are not afraid of that. They assist you in becoming more human.”

Glennon still thinks about Tracy and the impact of the woman for whom “it took enormous effort to raise her head or respond to a question.” Tracy loved the “raucous” water fights that sometimes broke out after dinner. She loved the comforting sips of coffee given to her — a special treat because she could only take nourishment by a feeding tube. Tracy died in 2009 from natural causes. For Glennon, the beauty of Tracy’s life and difficulty of her death correlate to how well, how fully, she lived her life.

Remembering Tracy is to celebrate the things that gave her joy, Glennon says, like the colorful skirts she wore. Glennon saved some of Tracy’s clothes and later used the material to make, for example, pillow covers for Tracy’s friends and a set of stoles for a friend’s ordination into the Anglican priesthood.

There is perhaps no symbol of L’Arche’s message that is more tender than Tracy. “In the honesty, dignity and courage through which she lived her life,” Glennon says, “she taught us so much about accepting ourselves.”

Living in community with people challenged intellectually and sometimes physically strips away the veneer of human superficiality. “You don’t exist on the surface very long,” Glennon says. “You see the reality of humanity very quickly.”

In early 2015, Glennon took a new position at L’Arche as recruiting coordinator. L’Arche hires more than 200 assistants yearly for its 29 communities in Canada. Glennon is a natural for the role. “Everything I really want, L’Arche has given me,” she says.

Thinking back to that 22-year-old college graduate who was starting out living in community, Glennon says she was stunned then when she met assistants who’d been with L’Arche for 10 years. It seemed like an eternity. Now it seems like a perfect choice. Living in a community, Glennon says, “is about finding peace with a way of life that is unexpected. L’Arche has a way of changing hearts and imaginations.”


  1. any communities like this in USA??? Mike Thuis graduate 1965—-Retired Special needs teacher—Love to move in somewhere like this—-In fact, it would be ideal —– Still got a lot left to offer, one would hope. Couldn’t think of a more exciting venture…

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