La Salette and L’Arche

 My husband, Richard, and I have been members of the La Salette Faith Community since 1970. From that time until 1996 when the property was finally sold, we celebrated Liturgy each Sunday at the La Salette Shrine in Ipswich, Massachusetts with our family.


Small Steps at First

La Salette Shrine Church, Ipswich MA.:
(left, façade; right interior)

In 1981, at a meal in our home one evening, Fr. Tom Reilly, MS, who was Superior of the La Salette Shrine, spoke to us about a woman, named Elizabeth Buckley, who was coming to look at an empty house on the Shrine property in order to establish a home for adults with developmental disabilities. He then related that she had been the founder and director of a L’Arche home in Inverness, Scotland. This information, at the time, meant little to us because we had never heard of L’Arche. I asked him to let me know if she decided to accept the offer from the La Salettes because I would certainly want to welcome her to this area.

Later I learned more about L’Arche. Jean Vanier, a Canadian by birth, is the founder of the L’Arche movement which was established in Trosly-Breuil, France in 1964. The community began when Jean invited two men with developmental disabilities, who had been living in an institution, to come and live with him in his home. His name for their home, L’Arche, has its origin in the book of Genesis — L’Arche being French for ark. Just as Noah invited all God’s creatures into the ark, L’Arche likewise became a symbol for refuge and hope for those with developmental disabilities.


Part of a Worldwide Family

The Federation of L’Arche has grown to over 135 communities in 20 countries throughout the world—spread through Europe, the United States, Canada, South and Central America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia and Australia. There is usually more than one home in a community and in each home, the core members live with assistants in a family-like environment.


Retreat Group of Irenicon
Community, Massachuetts

Elizabeth Buckley had been part of the L’Arche community for many years in France, England and also was the founding director of a community in Inverness, Scotland. With the guidance of L’Arche’s Board of Directors, the blessing of Cardinal Alberto Medeiros, then Archbishop of Boston, the assistance of Fr. Sam Lombard, Vicar of the North Shore of Boston, the support of Fr. Tom Reilly, M.S., and the approval of the final acceptance of the proposal by the Board of Selectmen, the L’Arche Board visited the Shrine property in June,1981.

They were shown a house alongside the main driveway to the verdant 312 acre property. It had a large entryway with a rounded staircase leading to the second level where there were four bedrooms. It also featured a large dining room with a table seating twelve, an entry hall and a large kitchen. These were wonderful features of hospitality so important to L’Arche.

Soon the Board decided that this would be a good house. Agreements were made and Fr. Tom paved the way for Irenicon to remain in the Ipswich for ten years. When the Board first discussed what they would call their new community, they finally chose “Irenicon”—a Greek word meaning “a way of peace”.


Searching for Housemates

Cardinal Richard Cushing with
camper at La Salette Shrine,
Ipswich, MA.

Elizabeth moved into the house on August 15, 1981. Through her many contacts, Elizabeth discovered that the people at greatest risk were the adult children of aged parents. Their parents had great anxiety over what would happen to their children, who had always remained in their care, once they were physically unable to care for them any longer, either through illness or death.

Elizabeth compiled a list of seventy-two families for the four beds which were available in the house. After holding interviews, they selected five people as possible core members. The second core member was joined by Sr. Patricia Murphy, S.C., a new assistant in the household, a special education teacher and chaplain at the Cardinal Cushing School in Braintree, MA. There were seven or eight seminarians living at La Salette in Ipswich at the time and their involvement with the Irenicon community was an enormous help.

In May of 1987, there was a L’Arche International Gathering in Italy, in which Elizabeth and my husband, Richard, who was then Board President, participated. Irenicon was accepted by the Federation of L’Arche as a permanent member and from that time on the community has been known as L’Arche Irenicon.


Support for Irenicon Grew Quickly

Many members of the La Salette Sunday worshipping community took the Irenicon community to their hearts and offered enormous support – personally, professionally and financially. People volunteered to share their time and talent by assisting with dinner preparation, presence at evening prayer, volunteer pick-up for transportation to various activities, driving core members for a bowling night out or for roller skating parties. Invitations were forthcoming to backyard barbecues, pool parties and picnics at people’s homes. Irenicon, in turn, always welcomed guests with great hospitality and celebration.

This support and outreach continues even though the Shrine property was sold in 1996 and the Irenicon Community has moved to a home in Haverhill, MA. There are now thirteen core members and fifteen assistants in four houses. L’Arche’s interaction with La Salette continues since each month the assistants bring the core members of Irenicon to the place where the La Salette Sunday worshipping community has relocated.


Elizabeth Meets Doug, Our Youngest Son

(L to R) Douglas (seated) with his
parents, Carol and Richard Wysopal

I admired Elizabeth since the first moment I met her. When she eventually came for the first time to visit our family – consisting of Richard, my husband, Chris, our oldest son, and Doug, two years younger and disabled – I saw her true stellar qualities. And she was even more loving than I had first suspected.

When Elizabeth met Doug, she became very focused on him and his needs. She asked him all types of questions, and they shared many hearty laughs together. I saw this special woman as one who loved being with our son. Sometimes other adults would engage Doug in conversation or social activities, but there often seems to be an underlying sense of “needing to be kind to my child because they felt pity for him”. Not so with Elizabeth. Her love was genuine and available. That was the first time I saw the charism of the L’Arche philosophy in action.

One part of the L’Arche mission statement says, “We seek to build a world that recognizes the unique value of every person and our need for one another.” Amazingly, Elizabeth saw the unique value in our son, Doug, and delighted in his presence!


Jean Vanier—A Truly Extraordinary Person

Jean Vanier, who with
Simi and Philippe
Seux, founded 
L’Arche in 1964.

Another experience I treasure to this day is when I met Jean Vanier. We had the privilege of hosting a Regional meeting of L’Arche communities at the La Salette Shrine Church in Ipswich, MA in1983. Assistants of the L’Arche communities in the Northeast U.S. were invited. For that meeting, Jean simply took a seat in the circle of chairs with all those attending. He first spoke of his awareness of the energy that it takes to live with people with varied levels of disabilities. His sensitivity, peace and support of the life of the assistants were most evident.

A young man asked him, “What would you do if an assistant did something and upset a core member?” Jean responded quietly and thoughtfully, “I would ask to meet with the assistant and ask what happened in his own life that he would think to upset a core member. After all, the core member trusted him to care for him. No one does something like that without first having something that occurred in their own life.”

I realized at that moment that I had not thought about the needs of the assistant. I had been thinking only about the core member. Jean’s insight showed me that he doesn’t just talk about loving one another. He lives that experience in each of his encounters.


A Child With Disabilities Has Helped Us to Grow

Untitled-6Our son, Doug, has presented many challenges and spurred much growth in our life as a family. Today he is a 41 year old adult living in a group home twenty-five minutes from our house. We talk daily on the phone, sometimes as much as four times a day, because he loves to communicate all the happenings of his day.

Sometimes having a child with developmental disabilities can drive a family apart. One parent may think he/she has the right way to approach things while the other differs in his/her approach. Richard and I, as a couple, along with Doug’s older brother, Chris, had to work together in caring for and dealing with the daily challenges and gifts of living with and loving Douglas but God has helped us abundantly.

Now when we have family gatherings, Doug loves to interact with his teenage niece and nephew and especially the newest member of our family, his four-month-old nephew, Cole. Doug especially revels in being called “Uncle Doug”!


Reconciliation Around Us and Within Us

Untitled-7In all the years we have been involved in the L’Arche community, we have seen the gift of reconciliation in action. We’ve seen for ourselves the love that helps them love each other as they are and where they are.

In having known and loved so many La Salette Missionaries over many years, we have also seen this same charism of reconciliation in their warm hospitality for all who visit and participate in their ministries. The fitting phrase that comes to mind is, “All are welcome in this place”.

Since the closing of the La Salette Shrine in 1996, our La Salette Faith Community, consisting of some 100 people strong, gathers regularly for prayer and worship, still guided by a few La Salettes from around our area and led in prayer by Diocesan, Franciscan and Jesuits priests as well. We see the embrace of reconciliation not just in Sunday Mass, but in our carrying this charism and mission into our own families, neighborhoods and workplaces, continuing our outreach through the volunteer ministries in which we participate.

Untitled-8All in all, our years of involvement with the L’Arche Community and the La Salette Missionaries have been years of growth and blessings, thanks be to God! We are all responding to Jesus’ call to live a life of genuine, active and reconciling love.

In September of 2008 we commemorated the Twenty-fifth Anniversary of Irenicon with an event-filled day. We began with a Mass at a Parish Church in Haverhill, MA., with Fr. Joe Bachand, M.S., Provincial of the Province of Mary, Mother of the Americas, as presider. His presence with L'Arche-Irenicon on this special day affirms the ongoing commitment of the La Salette Missionaries as we journey together to the Kingdom, always cognizant of our ongoing call to “be reconciled” and to be “ministers of reconciliation” to others (2 Cor 5: 18-20).