Since its founding in 1935, Alcoholics Anonymous has helped hundreds of thousands around the world work towards maintaining sobriety and combating the sin of drunkenness. Most people don’t know that a key founder who helped start the program was a Catholic Nun by the name of Sister Mary Ignatia.
“The virtue of temperance disposes us to avoid every kind of excess: the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco, or medicine. Those incur grave guilt who, by drunkenness or a love of speed, endanger their own and others’ safety on the road, at sea, or in the air” – Catechism of the Catholic Church 2290
Born in 1889, Bridget Della Mary Gavin grew up in a rural farm town of Ireland, until she emigrated to Cleveland, Ohio in 1896. There, she attended Catholic school and studied music. Despite her mothers wishes, she joined the Sisters of Charity of Saint Augustine at the age of 25 as a late vocation, and was given the name Ignatia.
She was a music instructor teaching in the Cleveland school system for a number of years, until her order transferred her to hospital ministry. In 1928, Saint Thomas Hospital in Akron opened and she was appointed head of admissions. As head admissions officer, she became friends with Dr. Bob, one of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous. In 1934, she began trying to treat patients with alcoholism from both a medical and ministerial perspective, a concept not welcomed by many hospitals at the time.
In 1939, 4 years after founding Alcoholics Anonymous, Dr. Bob was able to convince Sister Ignatia to admit a patient with alcoholism to Saint Thomas Hospital. Working with Dr. Bob and Bill W., the other co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, the three founded the first alcoholic treatment center of its kind in the United States. Her work in treating patients with alcoholism was so effective and charismatic she was given the moniker “AA’s Angel,” her biographer writing that:
“Put briefly, AA’s angel was a strong, empathetic woman who extracted goodness from every situation and resolved to leave the world a little better than she found it. Ignatia had all the charisma of an Irish anamchara, or soul friend, so she easily folded the troubled into her heart.”
She was even recognized on the national level, with then-president John F. Kennedy sending her a letter of acknowledgment commending her on achievements.
Two years after Dr. Bob’s passing, she was transferred in 1952 by her order to Saint Vincent Charity Hospital in Cleveland, and placed in charge of the alcoholic ward. She quickly founded the Rosary Hall Solarium, a treatment center for alcoholics. During her 14 years of working there, she helped treat over 15,000 patients. When she passed in 1966, her funeral had over 3,000 in attendance, including Bill W.
Today, the works of Sister Mary Ignatia continue to live on. Her contributions shaped Alcoholics Anonymous into the helpful program it is today, and Rosary Hall remains a top treatment center for substance addictions in the United States.