By Elisabeth Deffner     11/12/2014

It’s a big year for L’Arche—a movement Pope John Paul II once described as “a dynamic and providential sign of the civilization of love.”

The movement—which integrates people with and without disabilities, living in community—celebrates 50 years this year. L’Arche Wavecrest, the Orange County-based L’Arche community, is also celebrating its tenth anniversary this year.

But celebration is par for the course at L’Arche, which celebrates the unique gifts of all people.

“The spirit of joy and celebration is always present,” says L’Arche Wavecrest Executive Director Jim Dempsey.

L’Arche Wavecrest is home to five core members—adults with disabilities—and three live-in assistants. On a recent Saturday the home held one of its monthly community gatherings, inviting board members, volunteers, family and friends to a potluck celebration of the community at the Orange residence (known as Abraham House).

Among the guests was new board member Tracy Dittmeier, niece to longtime L’Arche Wavecrest supporter Marianne Loewe. Dittmeier had been searching for a way to give back to the community, and when she learned that L’Arche Wavecrest could make use of her human resources experience, she decided to get involved.

“I saw that there was a need,” she says, and the spirituality of the community also appealed to her. “I wanted to grow personally, and with the community,” she explains.

L’Arche (French for “the ark”) got its start in France in 1964, when Jean Vanier invited two men with disabilities to share a home with him. Now L’Arche has grown to 140 communities in 40 different countries. In the United States, there are 18 L’Arche communities; L’Arche Wavecrest is the only one in California.

Though it’s celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, L’Arche Wavecrest’s roots actually stretch back to 1992, when Orange County native Karen Carr returned home from France, where she had lived as a L’Arche assistant for five years.

“I came back with a vision to start one here,” she says, “knowing it would be such a wonderful home for people—and it’s faith-based. There aren’t too many group homes that are faith-based.”

While L’Arche is an ecumenical movement, it has strong ties to the Catholic community. (Dempsey first encountered L’Arche, for instance, while living in a Catholic Worker home.) L’Arche Wavecrest core members are active in the Cathedral Coffee House, Holy Family Cathedral’s ministry for adults with special needs. Coffee House Members meet once a month, attending Mass together and then meeting for a meal and lessons in faith. It’s a non-denominational ministry, though lessons are taught from a Catholic perspective.

“It’s a ministry of the heart,” says Dempsey about L’Arche.

“So many times we get into theology, things of the head. Our core members bring us to their core—to the heart.”

Members of the L’Arche Wavecrest community will participate in a special Mass at Holy Family Cathedral Nov. 16 at 11:15 a.m. to celebrate the 50th anniversary of L’Arche International and the tenth anniversary of L’Arche Wavecrest. Bishop Tod Brown will celebrate the Mass. A reception will follow.