L’Arche Christmas pageant showcases ‘generosity of spirit and acceptance of everyone’

The annual Christmas pageant at L’Arche Edmonton may seem like a typical Nativity play on the surface.

There’s Joseph, Mary, the baby Jesus as well as shepherds and the three wise men. However, when you take a closer look, this version of the story of Christ’s birth is much more special for the actors and everyone involved.

“It is the best kept secret, ever,” said George Wharry, who beamed with pride as he watched his 26-year-old daughter, Sally, play the role of Mary in this year’s pageant. “There’s not a lot of places for special-needs adults, and this is the ultimate stage for them.”

Sally lives with autism; all the main actors have intellectual disabilities. They are members of L’Arche Edmonton, one of 131 communities worldwide in which people with and without developmental disabilities live, work and share their lives together.

L’Arche was founded in France by the Catholic theologian and humanitarian Jean Vanier, in 1964.

Eight years later the Edmonton chapter, only the second in Canada, was established. L’Arche Edmonton has been providing a home and programs to adults with developmental disabilities in the capital city and in Sherwood Park since 1972. The L’Arche Edmonton community has about 65 members.

L'Arche Edmonton members portray angels in the annual Christmas pageant.Lincoln Ho, Grandin Media

As the house lights dimmed at St. Thomas d’Aquin Parish on the night of Dec. 10, all eyes were on the sanctuary. Actors portrayed angels with sparkly halos and fluffy wings. They encircled Wharry, who wore a pink veil in her role as Mary. Right beside her was Bob Sutter, a 69-year-old man wearing his favourite red baseball cap and bringing his own personal style to the role of Joseph.

L’Arche assistants, who had helped put together the costumes donated by community members, narrated the familiar story from the Gospel of Luke. And a choir of 10 at stage right, accompanied by guitars and a piano, accompanied the actors with more than a dozen Christmas carols.

As with any pageant staged by volunteers, anything can happen – especially when you have an actual baby portraying the newborn Jesus. Wharry reflected on her own performance this year: “The baby was starting to cry. She’s sleepy. It’s almost her bedtime.”

Nevertheless, the pageant was a hit.

“I felt very proud — and nervous — because she’s holding the brand new little one,” added Sally’s mother, Wendy. “She did a great job.”

Wendy and George Wharry's daughter Sally starred as Mary in the pageant.Lincoln Ho, Grandin Media

Staging the annual Christmas pageant is an “amazing story of vulnerability,” said Sister Pat Desnoyers, community leader and executive director of L’Arche Association of Edmonton.

“There is a tradition throughout all the L’Arche communities of really showing the story of vulnerability of Jesus being born, with people who are vulnerable.”

Seventy members of the extended L’Arche Edmonton community took six weeks to prepare for the pageant. It has been staged every year since the community began, but it’s only been open to the public for the last 12 years. Admission is free, with attendees asked to bring a donation to the Edmonton Food Bank.

Carmel Hunt, who lived in the L’Arche community for several years as a live-in assistant, provided technical assistance for this year’s pageant – which is a highlight for her each year.

“I love the spirit of it — that it speaks to the values of L’Arche, and letting people’s light shine through,” she said. “It’s a good opportunity to be together.”

Sister Pat Desnoyers

The acting roles are open to all L’Arche members. Ensuring the right support for the actors— not too much and not too little — is the biggest challenge, said Desnoyers. And the production is often unpredictable. One year, the actor portraying Mary walked off the stage when she saw the live baby.

This year’s Jesus was two-month-old Nayell Osana, whose parents are friends with a L’Arche community member from St. Andrew’s Parish in Edmonton. Sally Wharry said co-starring with baby Nayell was the most difficult — and the most rewarding — part of the night

Having a real baby portray Jesus is a reflection of the L’Arche mission to reveal the gifts of people with developmental disabilities and to engage diverse cultures to build a better society.

“I think the atmosphere at the pageant describes it well,” said Kathleen Ladouceur, who attended the pageant with her two-year-old son, Raphaël. “Everyone is welcome, of all ages, all talents, skill levels and all languages. And that’s what I love about the L’Arche community: it is radically inclusive.”

The Christmas pageant drew an audience of 140 this year, but it has been as high as 200 in the past. And it’s as much an opportunity to provide entertainment as it is a chance to teach people about L’Arche.

Audience members say the L'Arche pageant reflects the true meaning of Christmas.Lincoln Ho, Grandin Media

“People are drawn to learn about L’Arche, to see the people that are in the play,” said Gary Vincent, who lived in Edmonton’s L’Arche community for five years in the 1970s and ΄80s

“I think we just have to promote L’Arche a little bit more,” added George Wharry. “The community where they live is amazing. People don’t know about it.”

Katherine Topolniski said this year’s pageant was “really touching, and beautiful. I think it’s really meaningful to bring visibility and engage all people of diverse backgrounds.”

For Topolniski, the L’Arche pageant reflected the true meaning of Christmas.

“I think it’s about generosity of spirit, and the acceptance of everyone. That everyone deserves to be part of something, belonging. It’s a wonderful way to kick off the Christmas season.  It just gets me in the Christmas spirit.”