Two new video interviews in the Consortium’s “Voices of Change” series highlight significant aspects of Western Pennsylvania disability history.
In one interview, Father George Strohmeyer, co-founder of L’Arche Erie, and Mary Ann Zarnick, long-time staff member, talk about their introduction to the spiritual mission of the L’Arche movement, the founding of L’Arche Erie, the early years, and its ongoing work. The year 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the community’s founding.
Father George Strohmeyer and Mary Ann Zarnick, L’Arche Erie
L’Arche Erie is a faith-based residential community where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together. It is part of a worldwide federation of L’Arche communities, and was the first established in the United States. The French name “L’Arche” translates to “The Ark,” a reference to Noah’s Ark.
Father Strohmeyer, a Catholic priest, co-founded L’Arche Erie with Sister Barbara Karsznia, a Catholic nun, in 1972. Father Strohmeyer served as pastoral leader for many years. Mary Ann Zarnick is one of the community’s longest-serving staff members. In the interview, they reflect on the meaningful friendships and mutual support that developed over the years, and their memories of the community’s first core members, who had transitioned out of Polk State Center in the first wave of the de-institutionalization movement.
“People [at L’Arche-Erie] are cared for, they’re loved. There’s a spirit of joy among us. The friendship is evident.” – Father George Strohmeyer
The international L’Arche movement dates to 1964 when Canadian Jean Vanier (1928-2019), former Catholic seminarian and philosophy professor, began living in community with two formerly institutionalized men in the village of Trosly in northern France. Today, the world-wide L’Arche movement has grown to 154 communities in 38 countries on five continents. L’Arche Erie participates in the North American section of L’Arche International, which include communities in Cleveland, Boston, and Syracuse, NY.
Vanier’s spiritual message of peace, justice, and the interconnectedness of all people was the foundation of the L’Arche movement. Sadly, following Vanier’s death in 2019, the world-wide L’Arche community was stunned by an inquiry into allegations of sexual misconduct by Vanier. In a 2020 report, L’Arche International confirmed “credible and consistent testimonies from six adult women without disabilities, covering the period from 1970 to 2005.”
“Whether you’re in Canada, India, Syracuse, wherever, it’s amazing when you walk into a L’Arche home, you know it’s a L’Arche home just by the welcome and the spirit that’s present there. The spirituality. It’s universal in that way.” – Mary Ann Zarnick
The report continues: “We are shocked by these discoveries and unreservedly condemn these actions, which are in total contradiction with the values Jean Vanier otherwise stood for. They are incompatible with the basic rules of respect and dignity of persons, and contrary to the fundamental principles on which L’Arche is based….L’Arche is committed to making sure that its 154 communities across the world are places of safety and growth for all its members, with and without disabilities.”
Nancy Murray and Marisa Niwa
The second new interview features disability rights leader Nancy Murray and her daughter Marisa Niwa.
Nancy is the president of The Arc of Greater Pittsburgh, an organization with a long history of disability rights advocacy. Marisa is an independent adult with Down syndrome.
As a young married couple in the 1970s, Nancy Murray and her husband Joe became parents to Marisa Niwa and her brother Mickey Scarcelli through a program that connected children with disabilities to welcoming families.
“Each and every year we meet with legislators to get the funding we need so more and more people come off of the waiting list and get the community services that they need.” – Nancy Murray
In the interview, Nancy talks about her career in disability services and advocacy. Since the 1970s, she has worked in the areas of public policy, family support, supports coordination, healthcare, and state government. Her primary area of interest is the resilience of families of children and adults with disabilities, and the long-term impact of caring for a person with a disability on a family.
Marisa talks about independent living, her employment with Giant Eagle for nearly two decades, her volunteer work with South Hills Interfaith Movement, and her accomplishments as a Special Olympian in golf.
“I went to an international Special Olympics event in Ireland. I came in second place [in golf]. My dad was my caddy.” – Marisa Niwa