Monday, July 11, 2011

Sr. Ignatia



The 'drunk's Angel of hope.
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Yesterday, Matt Talbot Sunday no less, I linked to Shadowland's post on Fr. Pfau, one of the first priests to admit he was an alcoholic - a significant and corageous admission in any day - but especially so back in the 1940's and '50's.  Fr. Pfau knew Sr. Ignatia, which prompted me to check the biography I have of the nun, Sister Ignatia - Angel of Alcoholic Anonymous, by Mary C. Darrah to see if he was mentioned in the book.  He was.
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A brief biography of Sr. Ignatia.
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"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
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Mary Ignatia Gavin (1889–1966) of the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine was known as The Drunk's "Angel of Hope"
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Sister Ignatia was born in Ireland as Bridget Della Mary Gavin on 2 January 1889 at Shanvalley, Burren, in County Mayo.
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Sister Ignatia took her vows in 1914 with the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine. As a superb musician, was called to teach music. She did this for about 10 years but found it "too hectic" and suffered a nervous breakdown. When she recovered, she began working as a nurse. On August 16, 1935, Sister Ignatia was in charge of admissions at St. Thomas Hospital in Akron, Ohio. She and Dr. Bob Smith (doctor), admitted the first alcoholic patient who would be the first of millions to participate in the Twelve-step program of recovery.
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Many of ideas of Alcoholics Anonymous ideas — including the use of tokens to mark milestones in sobriety — were introduced by Sister Ignatia. She gave alcoholics leaving St. Thomas a Sacred Heart medallion, instructing them that the acceptance of the medallion represented commitment to God, A.A. and recovery. She added that if they were going to drink, they should return the medallion first.
She was also the first to recognise the use of coffee for alcoholics, insisting that it be freely available in every stage of recovery.
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Between 1935 and 1965 she successfully treated thousands of alcoholics. Sister Ignatia pioneered the recognition of alcoholism among priests and nuns. She was remembered for her kindness, honesty and nonjudgmental love. - Wki
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Priests thrown under the bus.
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That analogy never fails to make me laugh since I always visualize a person laying under a city bus.  It is used repeatedly these days for anyone and everyone who feels mistreated, betrayed, made a scapegoat for the failings of others, or just 'gotten out of the way' as in 'swept under the rug'.  If that happened to any group of priests however, never was it so pronounced as it was in dealing with the alcoholic priest syndrome, relatively rampant in the late 1940's, 1950's and early '60's.  Bishops didn't want to admit it nor did they want to deal with it.  Yet Sr. Ignatia and her colleagues knew it had to be dealt with.
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To some degree, Sr. Ignatia was held back in her mission by her bishop and religious superior who sought to quell her enthusiasm and humble her for singularizing herself through her work and speaking engagements.  Sr. Ignatia accepted this with humility and obedience.  Nevertheless, critics at the time voiced concerns criticizing the tendency to hide the problem and deny that alcoholism amongst the clergy was as serious as it was.  One physician told a priest at a Clergy Conference:
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"The trouble with you priests is you all have 'dignosclerosis,'  hardening of the dignity.  If you weren't afraid to make a mistake, you'd be out curing people of these things."  (Makes me think of the Scripture; 'do no harm to my annointed' - used as a convenient maxim by some religious to hide behind and use as an excuse to insulate themselves from criticism.)
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"How can you believe, when you accept praise from one another and do not seek the praise that comes from the only God?" - John 5: 44
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The fear was that the Church's reputation would be tarnished if it became known that alcoholism was a problem in the priesthood, or that priests were members of AA.  A frequent lament whispered at the time was that the bigger concern of the bishops was aimed at safeguarding the image of the Church rather than saving the lives of alcoholic priests.  As one priest observed, "Frankly, I don't think the Church (the reputation of the Church) needs saving as much as the (alcoholic) man (priest).  God's cause is often hurt by people who are trying to save God." 
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Anyway, along comes Fr. Pfau, who broke the anonymity barrier and announced himself as the first priest to join AA.  Amongst other achievements, Fr. Pfau organized the Clergy Conference in Indianapolis, and authored the popular pamphlet series The Golden Book.  That was way back in 1949.
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The more things change, the more they stay the same.
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As the author Mary Darrah observed:  "Most often a priest's addiction and even his recovery were hidden from view.  The Church's frank denial that alcoholism was a common enough problem among her priests created serious obstacles to prevention, education, and treatment efforts attempted on their behalf." - Sister Ignatia, Chapter 6, An Unfinished Mission: Alcoholism and Catholic Problems
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An unfinished mission indeed.
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More links:
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Angel of AA
Sr. Mary Ignatia, A Founder of AA
Photo Credit
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A special thanks and remembrance in prayer for my friend Ty who gave Sr. Ignatia's book to me several years ago.

10 comments:

  1. Hi Terry -

    Thank you for remembering our dear Sr. Ignatia. I was born at St. Thomas Hospital (which is sadly no longer Catholic). She is all too often forgetten these days, which is a shame, although Akron did honor her memory by naming part of a street bordering the hospital after her.

    Although she often met with roadblocks in her ministry, and was not always supported by her own order or by the Diocese, she nonetheless never gave up and never forgot those who needed her help. She served with humility and determination. She also never forgot who she really served - Our Lord Himself and his Church.

    Blessings from Akron

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  2. She's a wonderful example and pioneer in the field.

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  3. Anonymous12:15 PM

    Her story is well documented in AA and goes back to the founding of AA. She was a critical element in the formation of detox as we now know it. Ed Dowling SJ worked closely w/ Bill W, the founder of AA,and helped him develop the 12 steps.

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  4. Our Lady of Mt Carmel and Guardian Angel...

    Thank you for your protection against the individual who came THAT CLOSE to T-boning me while I was on my motorcycle last night...apparently his missed exit and right hand turn was much more important than my life..

    OLMC, thank you for your prayers.

    Sara

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  5. I'm glad you are safe Sara. Do you have a Harley jacket?

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  6. Terry--No, No Harley Jacket.... :)

    I have a black leather jacket with fringes on the sleeves and red roses appliqued, very sexy :)--for fall and spring chilly weather riding.. and a grey and black mesh Joe Rocket jacket for summer riding...

    And I do have a pair of black buffalo leather chaps.. :)

    I wont' turn down a Harley jacket if someone wants to send me one :) No guarantees I'd make it look as good as Fr Corapi does.. :) Leather tends to make me look fat... :)

    Sara

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  7. Sara, are you getting ready for Sturgis? I used to live in Rapid City & it's the only time you see traffic there.

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  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  9. doughboy--

    No Sturgis for me..wayyy too far for me to ride my little 650..

    My idea of a vacation is a bit more cushier than a long tiring bike ride in the hot summer sun, then camping in the hot summer sun :) I prefer a cruise ship :)

    I do have a couple of tshirts that frieds got me while they were there..people do ask me about them....I tell them my grandma got them for me :) That usually gets some looks :)



    Sara

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