Sister Ignatia

AA’s Sister Ignatia

By bob k

St Thomas Hospital… (was) where the resourceful Sister Mary Ignatia, a nun who seems to have stepped out of The Bells of St. Mary, abetted the surreptitious admission of alcoholics for treatment. (Bill W. and Mr. Wilson, Matthew Raphael, P. 2-3)

Coming to America

Sister Mary Ignatia was “born in Ireland as Bridget Della Mary Gavin on January 1, 1889 at Shanvalley, Burren, in County Mayo.” (hindsfoot.org) She left this small farm to come to the United States where, in 1914, she entered the Charity Sisters of St. Augustine , in Ohio. An excellent musician, she spent her first ten years as a nun teaching music.

Ultimately, she found this occupation to be too stressful, and she suffered a nervous breakdown. “After being ill, she was assigned to less strenuous duties.” (Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers, P. 45) Assigned to St. Thomas Hospital, she first met Dr. Bob in 1928. The physician was on the “courtesy staff” at the Catholic Hospital. The physician’s principal hospital affiliations were elsewhere.

Co-Conspirators

In the spring of 1939, administrators at the Akron City and Green Cross Hospitals, noting that Dr. Smith’s mysterious patients owed over five thousand dollars, began scrutinizing his admissions more carefully.” (Not-God, Ernest Kurtz, P. 79) He asked Sister Ignatia, the admissions officer of St. Thomas if he could smuggle in some alcoholic patients. Dr. Bob knew that the good sister was sympathetic to the cause. “’We often discussed the problem of alcoholism and the tragedies caused by excessive drinking,’ according to Sister Ignatia. (Oldtimers, P. 185)

Smith prefaced his request for assistance with a confession of his own alcoholism. Their first venture in August of 1939, was followed by many more. “The sickly nun and the alcoholic surgeon cherished the thrill of ‘bootlegging’ alcoholics into St. Thomas — most often under a diagnosis of ‘acute gastritis.’” (Not-God, P.79) The sister’s co-conspirator was demanding, and requested a private room for his camouflaged patients, rooms that were unavailable.

There were two reasons behind the doctor’s request. The first was so that any withdrawal symptoms would occur out of the view of other patients, and secondly, so that there could be discreet conversations between the patient, and the string of visiting sober alcoholics. Sister Ignatia cleverly solved the dilemma by lodging the drunks in the “flower room,” a space used not only for the preparation of floral arrangements, but where the occasional “stiff” was housed, while awaiting shipment to the morgue.

Catholics and Protestants

Over the first few months of the use of the “flower room,” the Catholic sister’s conversations with the endless stream of visitors revealed a distressingly Protestant ideology. This prompted concerns about the Oxford Group connection “if she were to ask Sister Administrator openly to admit Dr. Smith’s alcoholics.” (Not-God, P. 80) In early 1940, she took this problem to the assistant pastor from a nearby parish. Arrangements were made for Father Vincent Haas to attend a meeting at the King School.

The young priest was “entranced, enthralled, and enthusiastic” (Not-God, P. 80) and reported back to Sister Ignatia’s administrative superior, who lent her support and cooperation in the ‘bootlegging’ operation. Later the admission of alcoholic patients was officially sanctioned. The Cleveland Catholics then “carried this news back to their city and thus laid to rest the lingering bogey which still haunted some of that metropolis’s more scrupulous Catholic alcoholics.” (Not-God, P. 80)

“Until Sister Ignatia… established an alcoholic ward at St. Thomas Hospital in 1939, virtually no general hospital admitted alcoholics for the treatment of their alcoholism.” (Bill W., Francis Hartigan, P. 94)

The Alcoholic Ward

It was found that the hospitalized drunks did better, not in private rooms, but when mixed with their fellows. At St. Thomas, “accommodations were enlarged to an eight-bed ward.” (Oldtimers, P. 190) “Patients were allowed only AA visitors, and there were no repeaters among the patients…’We learned from experience that the program is defeated in institutions where the majority of inmates are repeaters,’ Sister said. ‘It creates an atmosphere of pessimism and discouragement.’” (Oldtimers, P. 191)

The nun, naturally enough, stressed prayer. Although quite shy she revealed her sense of humor when a patient asked her to pray for him. “’I will indeed,’ she said. ‘But pray for yourself as well. There’s nothing God likes more than to hear a strange voice.” (Oldtimers, P. 192) Additionally, “Sister Ignatia made a point of helping her charges through their fourth step inventories.” (Oldtimers, P. 196)

She also helped with the racial integration of AA when “in 1948, Sister Ignatia and Dr. Bob successfully petitioned the hospital to change this policy (of blacks not being allowed on the alcoholic ward).” (Hartigan, P. 181) Akron’s first interracial AA group began about this time, and until his death in 1950, Dr. Bob frequently attended.

A Bad Business Model

“From his last drink in June, 1935, AA became the centerpiece of Dr. Bob’s life…. (He) worked with Sister Ignatia… to treat thousands of alcoholics, who were then channeled into AA. He provided all of these services without charge.” (Slaying The Dragon, William L. White, P. 186) A total of “4,800 alcoholics were admitted into St. Thomas under his care.” (Oldtimers, P. 188) In these acts of altruism, Dr. Bob was stalwartly supported by the frail little nun.

When Anne Smith died in 1949, Sister Ignatia wrote a touching letter to comfort her longtime colleague. Dr. Bob responded by expressing his gratitude for their enduring friendship. About this time, Dr. Bob made his last visit to the ward. “Iggy” played the organ for him. In a little more than a year, he too was gone.

Cleveland

In 1952, Sister Ignatia was transferred from St. Thomas to administer the alcoholic ward at St. Vincent’s Charity Hospital in Cleveland. At her suggestion, it was dedicated as Rosary Hall Solarium. The initials R.H.S. carved in flowing script over the door ‘just happened’ to be the same as those of Dr. Robert Holbrook Smith….When Sister Ignatia died in April 1966, she was eulogized as a charming, radiant little woman with no other aspiration than to be a humble, dedicated and anonymous Sister of Charity. (Oldtimers, P. 198)

It is one of life’s ironies that those who desperately pursue recognition often attain precious little, while those who shy away from it may have distinction thrust upon them.

In 1961, the aging nun received a letter of praise from President Kennedy’s White House. The crowd at her funeral, five years later, was reported to be 3,000, and included Bill Wilson. In 1991, she was elected into the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame. And she surely remained cherished in the memories of the sundry alcoholics whose lives she touched directly.

“Sister Ignatia provided each patient who left her care with a Sacred Heart badge.” (aa.org) She solicited a promise to return the badge before they drank again. Many early AA’ers have reported clutching those badges in times of desperation.

“The alcoholic is deserving of sympathy. Christ-like charity and intelligent care are needed, so that with God’s grace he or she may be given the opportunity to accept a new philosophy of life.” – Sister Ignatia, C.S.A

People like her give religious people a good name.


About the Author

Bob K. lives in the Metropolitan Toronto area, and has been a sober member of Alcoholics Anonymous for 24 years, and an out-of-the-closet atheist for that entire time. He has been a regular contributor to the AAAgnostica website for almost 5 years, and in January, 2015, published “Key Players in AA History” In 2013, he cofounded the Whitby Freethinkers meeting.

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  1. Christopher G December 6, 2015 at 10:15 am - Reply

    Great read and comments all.

    Makes me wonder if the sacred heart patch wasn’t the forerunner to sobriety chips.

    • Bob K. February 22, 2017 at 11:14 pm Reply

      I have heard from a variety of sources that indeed, they were Christopher.

  2. Denisk December 3, 2015 at 7:01 pm - Reply

    Great article Bob! Years ago I read ” Dr. Bob and the good old timers” and recall Sister Ignatia lovingly mentioned there. Regardless of her religious affiliation, she was a generous and thoughtful person who IMHO exhibited unconditional love for suffering alcoholics.

  3. John S December 2, 2015 at 8:24 pm - Reply

    That’s an absolutely wonderful article. I knew very little about Sister Ignatia, but I can understand why she was loved so much. It’s interesting that they not only pioneered admitting alcoholics to a general hospital, discovered treatment is best when they are together, but they also had the courage to integrate admissions. Amazing.

    Thank you Bob for writing this and for sharing it with the rest of us. So far on it’s first day of publication, more than 800 people have viewed this article, which is totally amazing!

  4. Fred S December 2, 2015 at 4:45 pm - Reply

    Thank you, Bob K.  As a long-time member of AA, I find such historical tales interesting and entertaining.  And regarding the matter of open-mindedness, I want to say that I think of this website, AA Beyond Belief, not as a meeting-place of atheists who incidentally have a drinking problem, but as one for people whose main concern is sobriety, and who prefer their sobriety with secularity.

    I’m sure we all acknowledge the positive effects that the religious aspects of AA have had with alcoholics over the years, and it does nothing to hinder our current efforts to obtain organization-wide recognition and acceptance if we, for our part, recognize and accept (yes, and respect) those religious aspects and our fellow AA’s who maintain their sobriety by those means.

  5. life-j December 2, 2015 at 1:38 pm - Reply

    She does indeed show that there are good religious people. Frankly, I already suspected that. But they are still religious, and most certainly nuns, and Sister is no exception, are devoted to spreading god’s word, and making converts. Sometimes by living a good example, sometimes with gentle guidance, sometimes with relentless prosletizing.

    If I had been there and she’d tried to get me to pray, we’d have had some bad vibes pretty quick.

    And while she did a lot of good for those that went to her hospital, and they were for the most part religious people anyway, it is a safe assumption that she did a lot to also influence AA in the direction of being “allied with” the christian faith.

  6. Bob K. December 2, 2015 at 11:14 am - Reply

    I regret that this essay and the tale of Ed Dowling didn’t make it into my book. It was an matter of space. The shipping issues require that the book NOT exceed a certain weight. A section “Religious Friends” was scrapped.

    Shoemaker, Buchman and Jerry McAuley were moved to Pre-History. Willard Richardson also survived the cut, ending up in a section labelled “Publicity.” The very religious Anne Smith and Henrietta Seiberling are in “Women Pioneers.”

    Less relevant characters than the good sister made it into the book because their stories are so interesting – Dr. Benjamin Rush, Jerry McAuley, and Richmond Walker particularly.

  7. Bob K. December 2, 2015 at 11:13 am - Reply

    For those who may quite reasonably wonder why an essay such as this one appears here, we recognize the objection. As with AAAgnostica.org, there will a variety here including reviews of potentially interesting books, and some looks at AA history, generally from the perspective of a secularist. With the occasional posting of this nature, we demonstrate an open-mindedness the like of which we are not always received from the other side.

    That’s a good thing.

    The bulk of what you will read here will more specifically address the concerns of the freethinker navigating sobriety in the 12-step environment. In these comments, I speak for myself as a regular contributor here and from my communications with the behind-the-curtain lever pullers of beyondbelief OZ.

    • John S December 2, 2015 at 11:43 am Reply

      Well said Bob.

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