Founder of AA
FEAST DAY: Jan 2nd
When Sr. Mary Ignatia Gavin died on April 1, 1966, Cleveland, Ohio, was besieged by mourners. At her funeral, the church overflowed with people, while TV crews jockeyed to cover the event.

Sr. Ignatia was a tiny, frail woman who suffered from physical and emotional problems during her early years. For 21 years she taught music for the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine.

At age 39, when she was recovering from a nervous breakdown, Sr. Ignatia received an assignment that meant leaving her life of music. In 1928 she went to work as the registration clerk in the admissions office of the sisters' new hospital, St. Thomas, in Akron, Ohio. Her assignment there would change the world.

At St. Thomas, she met Dr. Bob Smith, a physician trying to reestablish his reputation after a long history of drinking. Sr. Ignatia and Dr. Bob established an immediate rapport, since both were recovering from devastating problems: hers emotional, his alcohol related.

In 1939, Dr. Bob and Bill Wilson, a recovering alcoholic from New York, published a book, Alcoholics Anonymous, which outlined their philosophy on recovering from alcoholism and the importance of spiritual healing to the alcoholic. On a legal pad, Bill Wilson crafted The Twelve Steps based on their conversations around the kitchen table in Bob and Anne Smith's home.

By the end of 1939, according to the book Sister Ignatia: Angel of Alcoholics Anonymous by Mary Darrah, "A.A. emerged with a name, an identity, a new independence, and an effective program for sobriety. Still needed, however, was a sympathetic hospital that would tend to the alcoholics' medical needs while allowing the spiritual medicine of Alcoholics Anonymous to take hold."

In August 1939, Dr. Bob asked Sr. Ignatia to help him. He wanted to hospitalize alcoholics so they could begin a recovery program. Dr. Bob wanted to use St. Thomas as a place where the alcoholic could detox and then learn a new way to live—without alcohol. The idea was that the alcoholic would receive visits and encouragement from other recovering alcoholics. However, the St. Thomas administration had made clear to him that they did not want alcoholics in their hospital. Even before Dr. Bob's request, Sr. Ignatia had been quietly hiding alcoholics in the hospital.

She admitted the men during shift changes, so nursing supervisors could not protest.

But Sr. Ignatia's surreptitious actions had come back to haunt her. One day she had placed a drunk in the hospital's tiny Flower Room, where sisters watered patients' flowers. She described what happened when she returned to the hospital:"When I came over early the next morning, the night supervisor. . . was standing in the doorway. She said, 'The next time you take a DT in this place, please stay up all night and run around after him as we have.' . . . I decided then that's enough. I often felt sorry to see them turned away, but I was not the last word in the hospital."

"So," Sr. Ignatia recalled, referring to Dr. Bob's request, "you can imagine my misgivings." But because she trusted Dr. Bob, she agreed to take the patient.

When Dr. Bob sought admission for another alcoholic, Sr. Ignatia decided to put the two men together. It soon became obvious that a policy change was needed, and Sr. Ignatia was determined to include alcoholics in the St. Thomas admitting policy. Sr. Ignatia, Dr. Bob, and several AA members met with Sr. Clementine, the hospital administrator, and asked her permission to officially care for alcoholics. Sr. Clementine boldly agreed, and the board and diocesan authorities followed suit. St. Thomas Hospital, noted Darrah, "became the first religious institution in history to officially adopt a permanent policy that recognized the rights of alcoholics to receive hospital treatment."

Things went smoothly for awhile, but Sr. Ignatia never paid much attention to finances, a cause for concern among hospital administrators. The alcoholics admitted to St. Thomas were at a low point in their lives. Many had lost their jobs and were unable to pay for their care. The Sisters of Charity of Saint Augustine absorbed the debts from the alcoholic ward at first, but eventually asked Sr. Ignatia to be more fiscally responsible. Fortunately, she had made lasting friendships with the alcoholics she had helped through recovery, and they often raised the necessary funds for patients new to the alcoholism ward.

The minimum length of stay for alcoholic patients was 5 days. Alcoholics were the only patients not admitted to the hospital by physicians. Some of the doctors and nurses criticized St. Thomas for admitting "undesirable" patients. In her book, Darrah explained, "Akron's magic blend—the scientific with the spiritual—succeeded where previous attempts to treat addiction had miserably failed." Between 1939 and 1950, more than 5,000 alcoholics recovered through the Akron program.

Sr. Ignatia was much loved by the alcoholics to whom she ministered. Any attempts by hospital administrators to curb her advocacy for alcoholics met with staunch protests from the people she had helped. As her power increased, so did resentment toward her from members of her religious community. Dr. Bob died in 1950, and in 1952 Sr. Ignatia was transferred to Cleveland's St. Vincent Charity Hospital.

She recalled: "We're just like people in the Army, you know. We go where we are sent. . . . I was there [in Akron] for 24 years. . . and finally the obedience came that I was to go to Charity and work with AA there."

On August 7, 1952, at age 63, the "angel of Alcoholics Anonymous" arrived in Cleveland for her new assignment. Planning began for an alcoholism wing at the hospital. Darrah recounted the following story:

"As part of the ward's setup, [Sr. Ignatia] requested a coffee bar for the patients, similar to the one in Akron. However, a board member who reviewed the plan questioned the need for it. He returned the plan to Sr. Ignatia and said, 'A table will have to do.' But. . . Ignatia would not compromise. She knew what she wanted for the AAs, and she put the future of the ward on the line with her reply: 'Let's forget about it if you're not going to give us the proper setup.' The coffee bar remained in the drawings."

With the help and contributions of the many people Sr. Ignatia had helped, Rosary Hall Solarium (its initials in memory of Dr. Bob, Robert Holbrook Smith) accepted its first patient on December 15. Darrah wrote: "It was a kind of recovery mecca where physical medicine, spiritual nourishment, and brotherly love regularly produced miracles of recovery. . . . Sr. Ignatia was Rosary Hall's breath and spirit."

Through the years, the program successfully treated thousands of alcoholics. Sr. Ignatia was among the first to acknowledge alcoholism among priests and nuns. She was also instrumental in implementing the first Alanon program, for families of alcoholics.

To each person who completed the five-day program, Sr. Ignatia presented a Sacred Heart Badge. Those who accepted it promised to return the badge to Sr. Ignatia before taking another drink of alcohol. The custom is carried out to this day with tokens awarded for sobriety.

Even as her health declined, Sr. Ignatia continued to care for alcoholics at Rosary Hall. Thousands of alcoholics knew first-hand Sr. Ignatia's honesty and nonjudgmental love. In 1961, she was recognized for her work by President Kennedy.

Sr. Ignatia retired in May 1965. She died less than a year later on April 1, 1966.