The Word Among Us

October 2020 Issue

The Anonymous “Angel” of Alcoholics Anonymous

The Story of Sr. Ignatia Gavin

By: Anne M. Costa

The Anonymous “Angel” of Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of Sr. Ignatia Gavin by Anne M. Costa

On June 10, 1935, two men in Akron, Ohio, sat across the table from one another. Bill Wilson, a self-proclaimed “hopeless alcoholic,” and Dr. Bob Smith, a surgeon who couldn’t perform his next operation without a drink, were desperate and trying to talk each other out of taking their next drink. Today, that encounter is considered the very first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous.

At the time, alcoholics were considered morally weak at best and defective, criminal, and even insane at worst. Routinely they were jailed or sent away to asylums, shunned by society, and weighed down by shame and stigma. But today, as a result of AA, addiction is considered a terrible disease in need of compassionate treatment.

Hundreds of thousands of people owe their lives to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other twelve-step programs modeled after it. One day at a time, people struggling with addiction spend time honestly talking with other men and women who have been through the same struggle. Together they take back their lives and sanity. How? Through accountability, fellowship, spiritual growth, and surrender.

While many know about that first historical meeting, most are less aware of a colleague of Dr. Bob’s, Sr. Mary Ignatia Gavin. Sr. Ignatia, a diminutive, determined religious sister, played a crucial role in removing the shame and sense of hopelessness that most alcoholics bore because of the stigma surrounding their disease.

From Hitting Bottom to a New Beginning. Della Mary Gavin was born in 1889 in County Mayo, Ireland, and moved with her family at the age of seven to Cleveland, Ohio. She was a talented musician and helped support her family by teaching piano.

As a young girl, Della was deeply influenced by her Catholic education and felt a call to religious life. Her mother was reluctant; Della had even been engaged briefly. But in 1914, at the age of twenty-five, she joined the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine. Della took the religious name of Ignatia, after St. Ignatius of Loyola. Looking back, it was the perfect choice. Ignatius was the founder of the Jesuits and the pioneer of his own program of renewal, the Spiritual Exercises.

After entering the convent, Sr. Ignatia continued to teach music and became a music director for her community. Always giving herself completely to her work and being somewhat of a perfectionist, Sr. Ignatia eventually became overwhelmed by stress. As a result, she suffered from ulcers and ultimately what she called a nervous breakdown.

Due to the physical and emotional toll that her job had taken on her, the doctor recommended that she give up teaching music—until then her life’s passion and work. While she had never abused substances, in many ways this was Sr. Ignatia’s personal experience of “hitting bottom.” Yet as is often the case, God used this point in her life to call her into a new vocation.

During her lengthy recovery, Sr. Ignatia was treated by a dedicated physician who knew that it was not enough to treat only her physical condition. Nor did he condemn her or consider her emotional exhaustion a sign of weakness. This was a chance to learn a healthier way of living, and he encouraged her to examine the underlying causes of the breakdown. As a result, Sr. Ignatia reviewed her habits and assumptions and began to make the necessary changes for a full restoration of mind, body, and spirit.

Guided by Faith and Compassion. Armed with this insight and a deepened sense of empathy, Sr. Ignatia eagerly embraced her new assignment as the director of admissions of St. Thomas Hospital in Akron. While this was intended to be a less demanding job, it led Sr. Ignatia to pursue a new passion: caring for alcoholics.

Aware of her reputation for compassion and dedication, Dr. Bob Smith, who was a physician at the hospital, reached out to Sr. Ignatia for help in treating others with alcohol addiction. He saw in her the kindred soul of someone who had both the concern and the strong character needed to help other alcoholics get sober through the newly developed twelve-step program. Seeing the need to provide both spiritual guidance and medical care, Sr. Ignatia accepted the challenge.

At that time, it was against hospital policy to admit alcoholics, so Sr. Ignatia and Dr. Bob concocted a scheme to admit an alcoholic man under the diagnosis of acute gastritis. They knew they needed to place him in a private room where his intoxication could not be detected, but none were available. So Sr. Ignatia placed the man in the hospital’s “flower room.” Not only did this multipurpose space house floral arrangements awaiting delivery, but it also occasionally served as a way station for bodies on the way to the morgue!

With that singular clandestine caper, St. Thomas Hospital became the first facility in the world to treat alcoholism as a medical condition. Following a full confession of their actions, Dr. Bob and Sr. Ignatia managed to win over the hospital administrator, and the first alcoholic hospital ward was created. Not long afterward, Sr. Ignatia insisted that an African-American man be admitted to the previously all-white hospital ward, and so the first interracial treatment program was born.

It is estimated that more than 4,600 alcoholics were treated at St. Thomas Hospital and that nearly 15,000 people came under Sr. Ignatia’s care during her lifetime.

An Angel of Hope. Sr. Ignatia was motivated by an understanding of the dignity of people struggling with addiction. Looking beyond the labels and outward appearance of hopelessness, she once said, “The alcoholic is deserving of sympathy; Christlike 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.”

While her approach was sympathetic, it was also no-nonsense and straightforward. She was often quoted as saying, “Bend your knees and not your elbow,” as she considered prayer the cornerstone of everything she did.

Over the years, it was not unusual for Sr. Ignatia to receive a phone call or knock on the door in the middle of the night from someone struggling with the temptation to drink. It may seem unusual, but they were simply following the instructions that she gave to everyone who “graduated” from her care. When a patient was discharged, she would give them a Sacred Heart badge and have them pledge to return it to her before they took their next drink. This ingenious “prescription” became the impetus for the AA practice that still exists today of giving tokens to members as a way to mark milestones in their sobriety.

After the death of Dr. Bob in 1952, Sr. Ignatia was sent to plan and open an alcoholic ward at St. Vincent’s Charity Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. In charge of the design of the ward, which she named Rosary Hall Solarium, Sr. Ignatia insisted that a coffee bar be included in the plans. When one of the hospital administrators disagreed, she dug in her heels. He suggested a simple table instead, to which Sister responded, “Let’s forget about it if you are not going to give us the proper setup.” She prevailed, and the constant flow of fresh coffee at every twelve-step meeting can be traced back to Sr. Ignatia’s nonnegotiable policy.

This attention to every detail, as well as her concern for each alcoholic and his unique situation, moved one patient to say, “She saved my life. I found God and sobriety through her. She loved me when there was nothing about me to love. She was AA’s angel.”

Her Legacy Lives On. During her tenure, Sr. Ignatia listened to thousands of stories of addiction and strife. She once said, “Whenever I would see anyone under the influence of alcoholism, it actually made my heart sick.” Her boundless empathy moved Sr. Ignatia to become one of the first people to meet with and counsel family members of alcoholics. She was sensitive to the impact that addiction had on the whole family and felt it was important to support family members and encourage them to give her patient one more chance. Her influence and example helped shape the course of the first Al-Anon program for families of alcoholics.

The fact that Sr. Ignatia is lesser known than the two more prominent founders of AA is not by mistake. In her humility and respect for the concept of anonymity, she requested that she not be named on a plaque commemorating her contribution and work. She chose instead to give credit to God and the sisters of her community. Nevertheless, when she died on April 1, 1966, at age seventy-seven, close to three thousand people attended her funeral. At the service, AA’s cofounder, Bill Wilson, said that he considered Sr. Ignatia the “finest friend and the greatest spirit we have ever known.”

God had a very special plan for Sr. Ignatia’s life. Her faith, empathy, and strength brought hope to thousands of people who found sobriety through the AA program, and her many contributions continue to touch lives today.

Anne Costa is a licensed master social worker and the author of Encouraging Words to Live By: 365 Days of Hope for the Anxious and Overwhelmed.