Focus... on Marie-Hélène Mathieu
A life devoted to people with disabilities
Marie-Hélène Mathieu was born on 4 July 1929 in Tournus (in the Saône and Loire region of France).
She has dedicated her life’s work to people with disabilities, whose lives are sacred and who have a unique part to play, as well as to their families and friends.
1. Biographical details
In the 1950s, she began studying to become a special needs teacher under Father Henri Bissonnier. He was one of the few priests to consider the question of religious education for young people suffering from an intellectual disability, and went so far as to develop an innovative catechesis for them. At the end of her course, Father Henri asked her to work with him and this collaboration would subsequently last for around twenty years.
- In 1956, Marie-Hélène Mathieu was elected President of the French Christian Association of special needs teachers, for whom she founded the magazine “Educateurs spécialisés” [Special Needs Teachers]. She inspired an entire friendship and support network and organised congresses.
- In 1957, during a retreat at Chateauneuf de Galaure (in the Drôme region of France), where Father Finet was preaching, she met Marthe Robin, founder of the foyers de charité, which have spread throughout the world. Marthe Robin, who was paralysed and practically blind, was very close to children with disabilities and their families. She would become an advisor and friend to Marie-Hélène Mathieu, and her support was invaluable in the birth of OCH.
- In 1962, the “Liège trial” concluded with the acquittal of the parents who had killed their baby daughter who had been born profoundly disabled. The announcement of the verdict was met with scenes of jubilation. The violence of the event deeply shook society in both Belgium and France.
- It was in this context that Marie-Hélène Mathieu founded OCH in 1963. The Foundation aims to support families, encourage a response to their distress and offer them new hope, particularly through the introduction of a permanent place of welcome and financial support for Christian associations and establishments.
- In 1968, alongside the lectures and meetings, Marie-Hélène Mathieu created Ombres et Lumière, the OCH magazine aimed at people with disabilities, their families and friends. The magazine’s reach and influence would exceed expectations.
That same year, faced with the suffering of the parents of two children with a serious disability who had felt marginalised at Lourdes, she launched a remarkable pilgrimage to Lourdes with Jean Vanier for people with intellectual disabilities and their families and friends. At Easter 1971, this pilgrimage gathered together 12,000 people from 15 countries, including 4000 people with an intellectual disability. From this this extraordinary gathering the international movement of Faith and Light was born, a movement which today number more than 1,500 communities in 80 countries throughout the world.
- In addition to OCH and Faith and Light, Marie-Hélène Mathieu was involved in creating the Simon de Cyrène association for people who have suffered a severe head injury. She is also one of the founders of Relais Lumière Espérance, which is aimed at close friends and relatives of people suffering from mental illness, as well as the Groupe de liaison Saint Joseph, which twice a year brings together around twenty organisations working to found and support Christian homes for adults with an intellectual disability. In the same spirit, the Pierre-François Jamet working and communion group, which she launched with Xavier Le Pichon, enables around thirty small communities to meet and supports them in their care for people suffering from psychological distress.
- Marie-Hélène Mathieu was appointed by Pope John-Paul II to the Pontifical Council for the Laity (1984-1989) and as expert for the Holy See at the Council of Europe. She is the first woman to have given a Lent address at Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris (1988). Pope Benedict XVI appointed her auditor to the synod on the Eucharist (2005).
Currently Philippe de Lachapelle is Director of OCH, Cyril Douillet is Editor of Ombres et Lumière, and Ghislain du Chéné is International Coordinator of the Faith and Light movement. Today, through her testimonies, Marie-Hélène Mathieu continues to be involved in the lives of these support structures that she has created, in order to ensure that the person with a disability, irrespective of the severity, finds their unique, rightful place in society and in the Church.
Her testimony: When I was a child there was a girl in my class called Alice, who was very marginalised. One day when we had been particularly cruel and she was crying, I sensed the suffering behind her sorrowful face. I would have liked to have consoled her…. Or one day to console other people like her in their distress. Alice unwittingly guided me towards a school for special needs teachers. Through my studies I was able to meet Father Bissonnier, the pioneer of a new form of catechism adapted to people with disabilities. My work with him helped me discover, beyond appearances, the uniqueness of the individual, who is loved by God and called to share His glory. He transmitted a desire to help each person with a disability to discover their vocation, but also to support parents in their task, which is so hard and yet so beautiful. A tragic event therefore acted as the trigger. A couple who had ended the life of their child, born without arms, had been acquitted and greeted triumphantly. I was part of a general coming of awareness by kick-starting a collective work: “They have the right to live!” Immediately afterwards, I was driven to create OCH so it could come to the aid of families, and I did this with the spiritual support of Marthe Robin. In 1966, my discovery of the L’Arche community helped me, in turn, to discover a new dimension in our relationship with the weakest ones. A life of contact with such people revealed a new meaning to life and profoundly changed you. “Faith and Light” would share this same spirituality through a community of alliances.
Extract from the book “Never again alone” by Marie-Hélène Mathieu.
2. Works - Marie-Hélène Mathieu created:
L’Office Chrétien des personnes Handicapées (OCH) in 1963, of which she was Director until 1996.
- The magazine Ombres et Lumière in 1968, a Christian magazine for people with disabilities, their families and friends. She held the editorship of this until 2000, and still writes a bi-monthly column.
- The international Faith and Light movement with Jean Vanier in 1971, communities where people with an intellectual disability, their families and friends can meet. She coordinated the movement until 1990. Today, Faith and Light is present in 80 countries and has more than 50,000 members.
- The permanent reception service at Lourdes in 1972.
- The Groupe Relais friendship and prayer group in 1982 (together with Le Secours Catholique), now known as Relais Lumière Espérance
- The Pierre-François Jamet Communion and working group in 1992, together with Xavier Le Pichon
- Simon de Cyrène foundation in 2006
- The Groupe de liaison Saint Joseph, at the request of families, in 1986.
3. Positions held
First position as a special needs teacher …
- Secretary-General of the medico-pedagogical and psychosocial committee of the International Catholic Child Bureau BICE from 1956 to 1973
- President of the French National Catholic Union of Youth Special Needs Teachers UNAEDE from 1956 to 1971
- Vice-coordinator of l’Arche from 1972 to 1975
- International coordinator at Faith and Light International from 1978 to 1991
- Administrator of Secours Catholique from 1979 to 1986
- Administrator of Radio Notre-Dame from 1986 to 1993
4. Responsibilities within the Church
- Member of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, appointed by John Paul II in 1984.
- First woman to give an Easter address at Paris Notre-Dame cathedral in 1988.
- Expert for the Holy See on the subject of people with disabilities at the Council of Europe from 2001 to 2004.
- Auditor at the Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist in 2005, appointed by Pope Benedict XVI. She requested that even the most profoundly disabled people be permitted to receive the Eucharist in accordance with the faith of their family or community that accompanies them.
Regular columns in the Ombres et Lumière magazine since its creation in 1968.
- Mieux vaut allumer une lampe que maudire l’obscurité (Ed.OCH) 1981
- Dieu m’aime comme je suis (Ed Saint-Paul) 2002
- La lumière d’une rencontre, Quand la personne handicapée nous fait signe (Ed. Edifa-Mame) 2008
- Plus jamais seuls, l’aventure de Foi et Lumière (Ed Presses de la Renaissance) 2012
- Never again alone! (Westbow Press) 2014 . English version of Plus jamais seuls.
- L’Histoire de Foi et Lumière (DVD) 2006
- Une voix pour les sans-voix (DVD) 2010
6. Honours and awards
- Commandeur de la Légion d’Honneur, 2008
- “Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice” award (Papal Medal), 2005
- Award from the French National Academy of Education and Social Studies, 2003
- Knight of the French National Order of Merit, 1976