In December 2019, Sister Sue Mosteller was appointed to the Order of Canada for "her dedication to improving the lives of people with intellectual disabilities, and for her decades of work as a leader of L'Arche." In November 2022, Sister Sue and Sister Georgette Gregory (CSJ Congregational Leader) travelled to Ottawa for the ceremony.
Sister Sue Mosteller (right) with Governor General Mary May Simon.
Below, Sister Sue shares her thoughts on L'Arche and this honour:
I was humbled to be recognized in this fashion in 2019.
Two years later, and just in time for my pandemic-delayed induction ceremony in Ottawa, I'm finally finding the words to talk about receiving this honour as well as the terms to describe my 40 years with the L'Arche Daybreak community. I was 19 when I decided that I wanted to be a Sister. I'd been taught by the Sisters since Grade 8 and I loved them. I became a Sister in 1952, and I later went to teachers college. I taught school for 15 years. This was the life I'd chosen, but this path came to an unexpected turning point in 1969 when I heard Jean Vanier speak about L'Arche communities and L'Arche Daybreak.
Learning about L'Arche
L'Arche Daybreak had started in 1969. It was a community in Richmond Hill, Ontario. It was a network of supportive homes for people living with intellectual disabilities. I listened to how L'Arche was a community where people with disabilities and the people assisting them lived in the same homes together. They lived their lives, shared responsibilities, and created relationships that were described as transformational.
Vanier's words about L'Arche stirred something in me, and I realized this was where I wanted my path to go. It wasn't easy; at that time, Sisters were seen as teachers, nurses and administrators. In 1969, I asked the Sisters' leadership to let me join L'Arche to live and work there. I was refused.
But my second request was granted and in 1972, I arrived in Richmond Hill and right away became responsible for a home with 10 people living with disabilities, and also four or five assistants. I had never met a person with a disability before that day.
But I did understand community and I knew my role. It was to ensure that this was a home where everyone felt equal and where everything we needed to do — cleaning, cooking, repairs, house meetings, prayers, groceries — we would do equally, assistants and residents alike, and we'd do it with care, love and respect for each other.
Respect and Equality
All too often, our society dismisses people with disabilities as an inconvenience to be set apart. Sometimes, our kindness can make us condescending caregivers. The vision of L'Arche is for us to act as companions and equals. Each task was done in groups of two or more.
When assigned to cooking with Bill, who had a disability, we’d do it together. "We're going to wash the vegetables," I'd say, "because we don't want to eat the dirt and dust." I'd wash some and ask him to do the same. "Let's put them in a pot of water to cook them," I'd say, "and let's watch them because we don't want them to burn." It was always "we."
Whatever the work, I'd explain what was to be done in steps and explain why each step was needed. I soon learned that I’d have to give the same demonstrations many, many times, and appreciate how each repetition was an act of love and caring.
I saw such joy in our community as we cooked delicious meals together, as we chaired productive meetings together, as we maintained our happy home together. Disabilities are a challenge, but they are never to be treated as a burden. I loved being there.
A Changing Role
After three wonderful years, I was asked to take on a different role in L'Arche as Community Leader of Daybreak in Richmond Hill. And then, three years later, in 1976, to serve as International Leader when Jean Vanier stepped down from his role. My responsibilities shifted towards creating new L'Arche communities, first in Toronto, and then internationally.
I travelled to England, to Germany, to India, to Australia, and over the course of my 10 year mandate as Leader, we went from 35 communities to 65. My task was to create the administrative structure and find ways to build and sustain the new L'Arche communities. But to me, the most important thing was always to form and maintain the values.
The Life of L'Arche
This formation was essential. Assistants would need to embody the L’Arche spirit when sharing homes with people with disabilities. They would need to perform as equal and loving companions, and to maintain a sincere equality in all things.
Even though my role had become administrative and managerial, I still lived in my L'Arche community. I loved it too much to leave. I had no assigned household responsibilities, but living there kept my spirits high.
I lived in a L'Arche community until I retired in 2011 and I still think about L'Arche every day.
The Order of Canada
It was very moving to be recognized like this, but what really I hope for is to see recognized in our world today: the need for a theology of the heart and a formation of the heart. Our society lacks education in relationships, in how to manage pain, anger and hurt. We have little schooling on how to interact with each other or how to maintain loving and caring relationships.
To me, L'Arche was and is a school of the heart. People with intellectual disabilities act more from their hearts than from their heads. The people I lived with knew suffering and of course had endured many handicaps and especially rejections, but in a loving community like L'Arche, that pain became an opening to gentleness and warmth.
When you treat any person with love, respect and patience, they'll find those same things inside themselves.
Education is so very focused on mathematics, physics, engineering, economics, and other refinements of the mind. But we don’t teach people enough — or at all — about our hearts. The heart is where we find equality, forgiveness, mercy, care and love.
My hope is that my appointment lends some small credibility to an education of the heart where we treat each person with patience and empathy. Where we recognize that others probably have challenges that we don't understand and may not be able to solve, but we’ll still engage, we’ll be patient, and we'll be caring and loving as we aim to be good companions.