Sister Mary Ignatia (1889-1966)

The Year



Sister Mary Ignatia (1889-1966)

     Born Bridget Della Mary Gavin on January 1, 1889 to Barbara Neary and her husband, who lived on a small parcel of farmland called Gavin's Field in Shanvalley, Burren, County Mayo, Ireland, then part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Having moved to the United States with her family when she was about 7 years old. As a small child, she had seen alcoholics in Ireland and had been afraid of them.

     “She always felt that drunkenness was an offense to God,” says Amy Filiatreau, the archive director of Alcoholics Anonymous. “It had been so ingrained into her by her mother that she couldn’t stand even the word ‘drunk.’ ” But her mother also taught her to pray for alcoholics. In time, and despite her aversion, she would do much more than that. Beloved by all who were associated with or helped by her, she was commonly referred to as the “Angel of Alcoholics Anonymous” and has been admitted into the Health Care Hall of Fame.

      She graduated from Notre Dame University with a degree in music and in 1914 she entered the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine in Ohio, at which time she was given the religious name of Sister Mary Ignatia. A superb musician, she was assigned to teach music giving piano lessons and organizing a student band and orchestra. She did this for many years, but found it "too hectic" and suffered a nervous breakdown. When she recovered, she was assigned by her religious congregation in 1928 to work in the admissions office of St. Thomas Hospital in Akron, Ohio. It was then when she first met with Dr. Bob who was a physician on the courtesy staff at the catholic hospital. For a considerable time Sister serenely carried on at the admissions desk in St. Thomas. It was not then certain she had ever heard of A.A.

     She found an unmet need at St. Thomas. By 1934, in cahoots with emergency room intern Thomas Scuderi, she was moving ill alcoholics who came to the ER to an anteroom across from the hospital chapel, to let them sober up before putting them back on the street. To help them through delirium tremens (and to keep them from disturbing hospital patients and drawing attention to themselves), Scuderi would give them morphine. When they awoke, Sister Ignatia would ply them with black coffee and the juice-Karo concoction, which was thought at the time to be a calming mixture.
     “No one wanted the alcoholic patients because they were noisy,” says Sister Mary Patricia Barrett, assistant to the president and chief executive officer of the Sisters of Charity Health System, and the one who nominated Sister Ignatia for Hall of Fame recognition. “The nurses would complain to the sister in charge, but Sister Ignatia always seemed to win out.”

     Though Group One at Akron, and Group Two in New York had been in slow and fitful growth since 1935, neither had come to public notice.

     However in 1939 the scene changed abruptly. In the spring of that year the A.A. book was first printed, and Liberty magazine came up with an article about our society in the early fall. This was quickly followed by a whole series of remarkable pieces which were carried by The Cleveland Plain Dealer on its editorial page. The newspaper and the mere two dozen A.A.'s then in town were swamped by frantic pleas for help. Despite this rather chaotic situation, the Cleveland membership burgeoned into several hundreds in a few months.

     Nevertheless the implications of this AA population explosion were in some ways disturbing, especially the lack of proper hospital facilities. Though the Cleveland hospitals had rallied gallantly to this one emergency, their interest naturally waned when bills often went unpaid, and when ex-drunks trooped through the corridors to do what they called "Twelfth Step" work on sometimes noisy victims just arrived. Even the City Hospital at Akron, where Dr. Bob had attended numerous cases, was showing signs of weariness.

     In New York we had temporarily got off to a better start. There we had dear old Dr. Silkworth and, after awhile, his wonderful AA nurse "Teddy." This pair were to "process" some 12,000 New York area drunks in the years ahead, and so they became, as it were, the "opposite numbers" to the partnership of co-founder Dr. Bob and Sister Ignatia at Akron.

     Much concerned that, hospital-wise, his area might be caught quite unprepared to cope with a great new flood of publicity about A.A., Dr. Bob in 1939 decided to visit St. Thomas and explain the great need for a hospital connection that could prove permanently effective. Since St. Thomas was a church institution, he thought the people there might vision a fine opportunity for service where the others had not. And how right he was!

     But Bob knew no one in authority at the hospital. So he simply betook himself to "Admissions" and told the diminutive nun in charge the story of AA, including that of his own recovery. As this tale unfolded, the little sister glowed. Her compassion was deeply touched and perhaps her amazing intuition had already begun to say, "This is it." Of course Sister would try to help, but what could one small nun do? After all, there were certain attitudes and regulations. Alcoholism had not been reckoned as an illness; it was just a dire form of gluttony!

     Dr. Bob then told Sister about an alcoholic who then was in a most serious condition. "A bed would simply have to be found for him". Said Mary Ignatia, "I'm sure your friend must be very sick. You know, Doctor, this sounds to me like a terrible case of indigestion." Trying to keep a straight face, Dr. Bob replied, "How right you are — his indigestion is most terrible." Twinkling, Sister immediately said, "Why don't you bring him in right away?" So on Aug 16, 1939 Sister Ignatia arranged for the first A.A. admission, Walter B, at the request of Dr. Bob H. Smith.

     The two benign conspirators were soon faced with yet another dilemma. The victim proved to be distressingly intoxicated. It would soon be clear to all and sundry that his "indigestion" was quite incidental. Obviously a ward wouldn't do. There would have to be a private room. But all the single ones were filled. What on earth could they do? Sister pursed her lips, and then broke into a broad smile. Forthwith she declared, "I'll have a bed moved into our flower room. In there he can't disturb anyone." This was hurriedly done, and the "indigestion" sufferer was already on his way to sobriety and health.

     Of course the conspirators were conscience-stricken by their subterfuge of the flower room. And anyhow, the "indigestion" pretense simply couldn't last. Somebody in authority would have to be told, and that somebody was the hospital's Superior. With great trepidation Sister and Dr. Bob waited upon this good lady, and explained themselves. To their immense delight she went along, and a little later she boldly unfolded the new project before the St. Thomas trustees. To their everlasting credit they went along too — so much so that it was not a great while before Dr. Bob himself was invited to become a staff physician at St. Thomas, a bright example indeed of the ecumenical spirit.

     Presently a whole ward was devoted to the rehabilitation of alcoholics, and Sister Ignatia was of course placed in immediate charge. Dr. Bob sponsored the new cases into the hospital and medically treated each, never sending a bill to any. The hospital fees were very moderate and Sister often insisted on taking in patients on a "pay later" basis, sometimes to the mild consternation of the trustees.

     Together Ignatia and Dr. Bob indoctrinated all who cared to listen to the AA approach as portrayed by the book Alcoholics Anonymous, lately come off the press. The ward was open to visiting A.A.'s from surrounding groups who, morning to night, told their stories of drinking and of recovery. There were never any barriers of race or creed; neither was A.A. nor Church teaching pressed upon any.

      Since nearly all her strenuous hours were spent there, Sister became a central figure on the ward. She would alternately listen and talk, with infinite tenderness and understanding. The alcoholic's family and friends received the very same treatment. It was this most compassionate caring that was a chief ingredient of her unique Grace; it magnetically drew everyone to her, even the most rough and obstinate. Yet she would not always stand still for arrant nonsense. When the occasion required, she could really put her foot down. Then to ease the hurt, she would turn on her delightful humor. Once, when a recalcitrant drunk boasted he'd never again be seen at the hospital, Sister shot back, "Well, let's hope not. But just in case you do show up, please remember that we already have your size of pajamas. They will be ready and waiting for you!"

      As the fame of St. Thomas grew, alcoholics flocked in from distant places. After their hospitalization they often remained for a time in Akron to get more first-hand AA from Dr. Bob, and from Akron's Group Number One. On their return home, Sister would carry on an ever mounting correspondence with them.

     We A.A.'s are often heard to say that our Fellowship is founded upon resources that we have drawn from medicine, from religion and from our own experience of drinking and of recovery. Never before nor since those Akron early days have we
witnessed a more perfect synthesis of all these healing forces. Dr. Bob exemplified both medicine and AA; Ignatia and the Sisters of St. Augustine also practiced applied medicine, and their practice was supremely well animated by the wonderful spirit of their Community. A more perfect blending of Grace and talent cannot be imagined.

     It should never be necessary to dwell, one by one, upon the virtues of these magnificent friends of AA's early time — Sister Ignatia and co-founder Dr. Bob. We need only recollect that "by their fruits we shall always know them."

     Standing before the Cleveland International Convention of 1950, Dr. Bob looked upon us of AA for the last time. His good wife Anne had passed on before, and his own rendezvous with the new life to come was not many months away.

     Ten years had slipped by since the day when he and Sister had bedded down that first sufferer in the St. Thomas flower room. In this marvelous decade Sister and Dr. Bob had medically treated, and had spiritually infused, five thousand alcoholics. The greater part of these had found their freedom under God.

     In thankful recollection of this great work, we of AA presented to the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine and to the Staff of the St. Thomas Hospital a bronze plaque, ever since to be seen in the ward where Sister and Dr. Bob had wrought their wonders. The plaque reads as follows:


     Visitors at St. Thomas today often wonder why this inscription says not a word about Sister Ignatia. Well, the fact was, she wouldn't allow her name to be used. She had flatly refused; it was one of those times when she had put her foot down! This was of course a glowing example of her innate and absolutely genuine humility. Sister truly believed that she deserved no particular notice; that such Grace as she might have could only be credited to God and to the community of her sisters.

     This was indeed the ultimate spirit of anonymity. We who had then seen this quality in her were deeply affected, especially Dr. Bob and myself. Hers came to be the influence that persuaded us both never to accept public honors of any sort. Sister's example taught that a mere observance of the form of AA anonymity should never become the slightest excuse for ignoring its spiritual substance.

     Following Dr. Bob's death, there was great concern lest Sister might not be allowed to continue her work. As in other orders of the church, service assignments among the Sisters of Charity were rather frequently rotated. This was the ancient custom. However, nothing happened for a time. Assisted by surrounding AA groups, Sister continued to carry on at St. Thomas. Then suddenly in 1952, she was transferred to St. Vincent Charity Hospital at Cleveland, where, to the delight of us all, she was placed in charge of its alcoholic ward. At Akron a fine successor was named to succeed her; the work there would continue.

      The ward at "Charity" occupied part of a dilapidated wing, and it was in great need of repair and rejuvenation. To those who knew and loved Sister, this opportunity proved a most stimulating challenge. The Charity trustees also agreed that something should be done. Substantial contributions flowed in. In their spare hours, AA carpenters, plumbers and electricians set about redoing the old wing — no charge for their services. The beautiful result of these labors of love is now known as Rosary Hall Solarium, the initials of which were a tribute to Robert H. Smith.

     Again the miracles of recovery from alcoholism commenced to multiply. During the following fourteen years, an astonishing 10,000 alcoholics passed through the portals of "Rosary Hall Solarium" there to fall under the spell of Mary Ignatia, and of AA. More than two-thirds of all these recovered from their dire malady, and again became citizens of the world. From dawn to dark Sister offered her unique Grace to that endless procession of stricken sufferers. Moreover, she still found time to minister widely to their families and this very fruitful part of her work became a prime inspiration to the Al-Anon Family Groups of the whole region.

     Notwithstanding her wonderful workers within the hospital, and help from A.A.'s without, this must have been a most exacting and exhausting vocation for the increasingly frail Sister. That she was providentially enabled to be with us for so many years is something for our great wonder. To hundreds of friends it became worth a day's journey to witness her supreme and constant demonstration.

     Toward the close of her long stewardship there were brushes with death. Sometimes I came to Cleveland and was allowed to sit by her bedside. Then I saw her at her best. Her perfect faith, and her complete acceptance of whatever God might will was somehow implicit in all she said, be our conversation gay, or serious. Fear and uncertainty seemed entire strangers to her. On my leave
taking, there was always that smiling radiance; always her prayerful hope that God might still allow her a bit more time at Rosary Hall. Then a few days later I would learn that she was back at her desk. This superb drama would be re-enacted time after time. She was quite unconscious that there was anything at all unusual about it.

     Realizing there would come the day which would be her last, it seemed right that we of AA should privately present Sister with some tangible token that could, even a little, communicate to her the depth of our love. Remembering her insistence, in respect of the Akron plaque, that she would not really like any public attention, I simply sent word that I'd like to come to Cleveland for a visit, and casually added that should her health permit, we might take supper together in the company of a few of her stalwart A.A. friends and co-workers. Besides, it was her fiftieth year of service in her community.

     On the appointed evening, we foregathered in one of the small dining rooms at Charity Hospital. Plainly delighted, Sister arrived. She was barely able to walk. Being oldtimers all, the dinner hour was spent in telling tales of other days. For her part, Sister regaled us with stories of St. Thomas and with cherished recollections of Anne and co-founder Dr. Bob. It was unforgettable.  
     “Dr. Bob was the essence of professional dignity. He had a fine sense of humor and exceptional vocabulary…. Now, as I look back over the years, I realize that Dr. Bob was slowly but surely preparing me for the great project he had in mind. We often discussed the problem of alcoholism and the tragedies caused by excessive drinking. The individual given to alcoholic addiction is frequently a wreck of humanity – broken in body and soul, and heart and unable to help himself. His loved ones suffer, too; there were many broken homes and hearts because of compulsive drinking.” Sister Ignatia C.S.A.
     Before Sister became too tired we addressed ourselves to our main project. From New York, I had brought an illuminated scroll. Its wording was in the form of a letter addressed by me to Sister, and it was written on behalf of our AA Fellowship worldwide. I stood up, read the scroll aloud, and then held the parchment for her to see. She was taken by complete surprise and could scarcely speak for a time. In a low voice she finally said, "Oh, but this is too much — this is too good for me."

     Our richest reward of the evening was of course Ignatia's delight; a joy unbounded the moment we assured her that our gift need not be publicized; that if she wished to stow it away in her trunk we would quite understand.

     It then seemed that this most memorable and moving evening was over. But there was to be another inspiring experience. Making light of her great fatigue, Sister insisted that we all go up to Rosary Hall, there to make a late round of the AA ward. This we did, wondering if any of us would ever again see her at work in the divine vocation to which she had given her all. For each of us this was the end of an epoch; I could think only of her poignant and oft-repeated saying, "Eternity is now."

The scroll given to Sister may now be seen at Rosary Hall.

This is the inscription:


Dear Sister,
     We of Alcoholics Anonymous look upon you as the finest friend and the greatest spirit we may ever know.
     We remember your tender ministrations to us in the days when AA was very young. Your partnership with Dr. Bob in that early time has created for us a spiritual heritage of incomparable worth.
     In all the years since, we have watched you at the bedside of thousands. So watching, we have perceived ourselves to be the beneficiaries of that wondrous light which God has always sent through you to illumine our darkness. You have tirelessly tended our wounds; you have nourished us with your unique understanding and your matchless love. No greater gifts of Grace than these shall we ever have.
     Speaking for AA members throughout the world, I say: "May God abundantly reward you according to your blessed works —now and forever."

                                                  In devotion,
March 25,1964                          Bill W.
     Her work in helping alcoholics was done with much dignity and modest distinction. In December 1949, she was presented with the Poverello Medal of the College of Steubenville. The medal was given to her for the A.A. Fellowship for her untiring efforts with alcoholics in Akron.In March 1961.

     Sister Ignatia received a letter of acknowledgment for her pioneering contributions from the White House (President Kennedy), which she shared with Bill W. The letter read:

    Dear Sister Mary Ignatia:

        Through an admirer of yours, the President has learned of the fine work you have done in the past at St. Thomas Hospital in Akron, and, more recently, at St. Vincent’s in Cleveland.

        He has been informed that a large number of citizens have been restored to useful citizenship as a result of your efforts. As you have been a strong influence for the good to many people, you have added strength to your community and nation.

     In response to receiving a copy of the President’s letter, Bill responded to Sister Ignatia and wrote:

     We have read the marvelous letter which President Kennedy requested be sent to you. It reminds me that I have no words to tell of my devotion and my gratitude to you, of the constant inspiration you have given me and so many over the years by your example of the finest in all that is spiritual and eternal, as well as temporal.
Sister Ignatia provided each patient who left her care with a Sacred Heart badge. Receiving this item was accompanied by a personal promise to the Sister that the patient would return the badge before they drank again.

     She died in Richfield Ohio, at age 77, on April 1, 1966. There were reportedly about 3,000 people present at the funeral, including A.A.’s co-founder, Bill W.
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