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MARY IGNATIA, one of the finest friends that we of AA shall
ever know, went to her reward Friday morning, April first,
nineteen hundred sixty-six. Next day, the Sisters of Charity
of St. Augustine opened their Mother House to visitors.
More than one thousand of them signed the guest book in
the first two hours. These were the first of many who during
the two days following came to pay their respects to Sister.
Monday at high noon the Cathedral at Cleveland could barely
seat its congregation. Friends in the city and from afar
attended the service. The Sisters of Charity themselves
were seen to be seated in a body, radiant in their faith.
Together with families and friends, we of AA had come there
in expression of our gratitude for the life and works of
our well-loved Sister. It was not really a time for mourning,
it was instead a time to thank God for His great goodness
to us all.
its affirmation of the faith, the Mass was of singular beauty;
the more so to many, since it was spoken in English. The
eulogy, written and read by a close friend of Sister's,
was a graphic and stirring portrayal of her character, and
of her deeds. There was a most special emphasis upon the
merits of AA, and upon the part co-founder Dr. Bob had played
in Sister's great adventure among us. We were assured as
seldom before that those who dwell in the fellowship of
the Spirit need never be concerned with barriers, or with
those thousands of men, women and children whose lives had
been directly touched and illumined by Sister, it would
perhaps not be needful to write this account of her. Of
Sister, and of the Grace she brought to all these, they
already know better than anyone else. But to the many others
who have never felt her presence and her love, it is hoped
this narrative may be something for their special inspiration.
in 1889 of devout and liberty-loving parents, Sister entered
into this world at Shanvilly, County Mayo, of the Emerald
Isle. The famed poet Yeats, born nearby, once remarked that
the strange beauty of County Mayo had been specially designed
to raise up poets, artists, heroes and saints. We can little
doubt that even when Ignatia was aged six, and her parents
had emigrated from Ireland to Cleveland, she was already
beginning to manifest many a sterling virtue.
the child began to reveal unusual musical talents, both
of piano and voice. A few years later she was seen giving
lessons at the home of her parents. During 1914, she became
possessed of a great desire to become a religious. In this
year she joined the Community that many of us AAs know so
well - the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine. There she
continued her musical education and her teaching.
even then, as ever since, Sister was frail, exceeding frail.
By 1933 the rigors of her music teaching had become too
great. She had a really serious physical breakdown. Her
doctor put to her this choice: "You will have to take
it easy. You can either be a dead music teacher or a live
Sister. Which is it going to be?"
great good cheer, so her Community says, Mary Ignatia accepted
a much quieter and less distinguished assignment. She became
the registrar at St. Thomas Hospital in Akron, Ohio - an
institution administered by her Order. At the time it was
wondered if she could manage even this much. That she would
live to the age of seventy-seven was not believable; that
she was destined to minister to 15,000 alcoholics and their
families in the years to come was known only to God.
a considerable time Sister serenely carried on at the admissions
desk in St. Thomas. It was not then certain she had ever
heard of AA. Though Group One at Akron, and Group Two in
New York had been in slow and fitful growth since 1935,
neither had come to public notice.
in 1939 the scene changed abruptly. In the spring of that
year the AA book was first printed, and Liberty magazine
came up with an article about our society in the early fall.
This was quickly followed by a whole series of remarkable
pieces which were carried by The Cleveland Plain Dealer
on its editorial page. The newspaper and the mere two dozen
AAs then in town were swamped by frantic pleas for help.
Despite this rather chaotic situation, the Cleveland membership
burgeoned into several hundreds in a few months.
the implications of this AA population explosion were in
some ways disturbing, especially the lack of proper hospital
facilities. Though the Cleveland hospitals had rallied gallantly
to this one emergency, their interest naturally waned when
bills often went unpaid, and when ex-drunks trooped through
the corridors to do what they called "Twelfth Step"
work on sometimes noisy victims just arrived. Even the City
Hospital at Akron, where Dr. Bob had attended numerous cases,
was showing signs of weariness.
New York we had temporarily got off to a better start. There
we had dear old Dr. Silkworth and, after awhile, his wonderful
AA nurse "Teddy." This pair were to "process"
some 12,000 New York area drunks in the years ahead, and
so they became, as it were, the "opposite numbers"
to the partnership of co-founder Dr. Bob and Sister Ignatia
concerned that, hospital-wise, his area might be caught
quite unprepared to cope with a great new flood of publicity
about AA, Dr. Bob in 1940 decided to visit St. Thomas and
explain the great need for a hospital connection that could
prove permanently effective. Since St. Thomas was a church
institution, he thought the people there might vision a
fine opportunity for service where the others had not. And
how right he was!
Ignatia learns of AA
Bob knew no one in authority at the hospital. So he simply
betook himself to "Admissions" and told the diminutive
nun in charge the story of AA, including that of his own
recovery. As this tale unfolded, the little sister glowed.
Her compassion was deeply touched and perhaps her amazing
intuition had already begun to say, "This is it."
Of course Sister would try to help, but what could one small
nun do? After all, there were certain attitudes and regulations.
Alcoholism had not been reckoned as an illness; it was just
a dire form of gluttony!
Dr. Bob then told Sister about an alcoholic who then was
in a most serious condition. A bed would simply have to
be found for him. Said Mary Ignatia, "I'm sure your
friend must be very sick. You know, Doctor, this sounds
to me like a terrible case of indigestion." Trying
to keep a straight face, Dr. Bob replied, "How right
you are - his indigestion is most terrible." Twinkling,
Sister immediately said, "Why don't you bring him in
two benign conspirators were soon faced with yet another
dilemma. The victim proved to be distressingly intoxicated.
It would soon be clear to all and sundry that his "indigestion"
was quite incidental. Obviously a ward wouldn't do. There
would have to be a private room. But all the single ones
were filled. What on earth could they do? Sister pursed
her lips, and then broke into a broad smile. Forthwith he
declared, "I'11 have a bed moved into our flower room.
In there he can't disturb anyone." This was hurriedly
done, and the "indigestion" sufferer was already
on his way to sobriety and health.
course the conspirators were conscience-stricken by their
subterfuge of the flower room. And anyhow, the "indigestion"
pretense simply couldn't last. Somebody in authority would
have to be told, and that somebody was the hospital's Superior.
With great trepidation Sister and Dr. Bob waited upon this
good lady, and explained themselves. To their immense delight
she went along, and a little later, she boldly unfolded
the new project before the St. Thomas trustees. To their
everlasting credit they went along too - so much so that
it was not a great while before Dr. Bob himself was invited
to become a staff physician at St. Thomas, a bright example
indeed of the ecumenical spirit.
a whole ward was devoted to the rehabilitation of alcoholics,
and Sister Ignatia was of course placed in immediate charge.
Dr. Bob sponsored the new cases into the hospital and medically
treated each, never sending a bill to any. The hospital
fees were very moderate and Sister often insisted on taking
in patients on a "pay later" basis, sometimes
to the mild consternation of the trustees.
Ignatia and Dr. Bob indoctrinated all who cared to listen
to the AA approach as portrayed by the book Alcoholics Anonymous,
lately come off the press. The ward was open to visiting
AAs from surrounding groups who, morning to night, told
their stories of drinking and of recovery. There were never
any barriers of race or creed; neither was AA nor Church
teaching pressed upon any.
nearly all her strenuous hours were spent there, Sister
became a central figure on the ward. She would alternately
listen and talk, with infinite tenderness and understanding.
The alcoholic's family and friends received the very same
treatment. It was this most compassionate caring that was
a chief ingredient of her unique Grace; it magnetically
drew everyone to her, even the most rough and obstinate.
Yet she would not always stand still for arrant nonsense.
When the occasion required, she could really put her foot
down. Then to ease the hurt, she would turn on her delightful
humor. Once, when a recalcitrant drunk boasted he'd never
again be seen at the hospital, Sister shot back, "Well,
let's hope not. But just in case you do show up, please
remember that we already have your size of pajamas. They
will be ready and waiting for you!"
the fame of St. Thomas grew, alcoholics flocked in from
distant places. After their hospitalization they often remained
for a time in Akron to get more first-hand AA from Dr. Bob,
and from Akron's Group Number One. On their return home,
Sister would carry on an ever mounting correspondence with
AAs are often heard to say that our Fellowship is founded
upon resources that we have drawn from medicine, from religion
and from our own experience of drinking and of recovery.
Never before nor since those Akron early days have we witnessed
a more perfect synthesis of all these healing forces. Dr.
Bob exemplified both medicine and AA; Ignatia and the Sisters
of St. Augustine also practiced applied medicine, and their
practice was supremely well animated by the wonderful spirit
of their Community. A more perfect blending of Grace and
talent cannot be imagined.
It should never be necessary to dwell, one by one, upon
the virtues of these magnificent friends of AA's early time
- Sister Ignatia and co-founder Dr. Bob. We need only recollect
that "by their fruits we shall always know them."
of Dr. Bob
before the Cleveland International Convention of 1950, Dr.
Bob looked upon us of AA for the last time. His good wife
Anne had passed on before, and his own rendezvous with the
new life to come was not many months away.
Ten years had slipped by since the day when he and Sister
had bedded down that first sufferer in the St. Thomas flower
room. In this marvelous decade Sister and Dr. Bob had medically
treated, and had spiritually infused, five thousand alcoholics.
The greater part of these had found their freedom under
thankful recollection of this great work, we of AA presented
to the Sisters of Charity -of St. Augustine and to the Staff
of the St. Thomas Hospital a bronze plaque, ever since to
be seen in the ward where Sister and Dr. Bob had wrought
their wonders. The plaque reads as follows:
THE FRIENDS OF DR. BOB AND ANNE S.
AFFECTIONATELY DEDICATE THIS MEMORIAL
TO THE SISTERS AND STAFF OF
ST. THOMAS HOSPITAL
AT AKRON. BIRTHPLACE OF ALCOHOLICS
ANONYMOUS. ST. THOMAS HOSPITAL BECAME
THE FIRST RELIGIOUS INSTITUTION EVER
TO OPEN ITS DOORS TO OUR SOCIETY.
MAY THE LOVING DEVOTION OF THOSE WHO
LABORED HERE IN OUR PIONEERING TIME
BE A BRIGHT AND WONDROUS EXAMPLE
OF GOD'S GRACE EVERLASTINGLY SET
BEFORE US ALL.
at St. Thomas today often wonder why this inscription says
not a word about Sister Ignatia. Well, the fact was, she
wouldn't allow her name to be used. She had flatly refused;
it was one of those times when she had put her foot down!
This was of course a glowing example of her innate and absolutely
genuine humility. Sister truly believed that she deserved
no particular notice; that such Grace as she might have
could only be credited to God and to the community of her
was indeed the ultimate spirit of anonymity. We who had
then seen this quality in her were deeply affected, especially
Dr. Bob and myself. Hers came to be the influence that persuaded
us both never to accept public honors of any sort. Sister's
example taught that a mere observance of the form of AA
anonymity should never become the slightest excuse for ignoring
its spiritual substance.
Dr. Bob's death, there was great concern lest Sister might
not be allowed to continue her work. As in other orders
of the church, service assignments among the Sisters of
Charity were rather frequently rotated. This was the ancient
custom. However, nothing happened for a time. Assisted by
surrounding AA groups, Sister continued to carry on at St.
Thomas. Then suddenly in 1952, she was transferred to St.
Vincent Charity Hospital at Cleveland, where, to the delight
of us all, she was placed in charge of its alcoholic ward.
At Akron a fine successor was named to succeed her; the
work there would continue.
ward at "Charity" occupied part of a dilapidated
wing, and it was in great need of repair and rejuvenation.
To those who knew and loved Sister, this opportunity proved
a most stimulating challenge. The Charity trustees also
agreed that something should be done. Substantial contributions
flowed in. In their spare hours, AA carpenters, plumbers
and electricians set about redoing the old wing - no charge
for their services. The beautiful result of these labors
of love is now known as Rosary Hall.
the miracles of recovery from alcoholism commenced to multiply.
During the following fourteen years, an astonishing 10,000
alcoholics passed through the portals of "Rosary Hall"
there to fall under the spell of Mary Ignatia, and of AA.
More than two-thirds of all these recovered from their dire
malady, and again became citizens of the world. From dawn
to dark Sister offered her unique Grace to that endless
procession of stricken sufferers. Moreover, she still found
time to minister widely to their families and this very
fruitful part of her work became a prime inspiration to
the Al-Anon Family Groups of the whole region.
her wonderful workers within the hospital, and help from
AAs without, this must have been a most exacting and exhausting
vocation for the increasingly frail Sister. That she was
providentially enabled to be with us for so many years is
something for our great wonder. To hundreds of friends it
became worth a day's journey to witness her supreme and
the close of her long stewardship there were brushes with
death. Sometimes I came to Cleveland and was allowed to
sit by her bedside. Then I saw her at her best. Her perfect
faith, and her complete acceptance of whatever God might
will was somehow implicit in all she said, be our conversation
gay, or serious. Fear and uncertainty seemed entire strangers
to her. On my leave-taking, there was always that smiling
radiance; always her prayerful hope that God might still
allow her a bit more time at Rosary Hall. Then a few days
later I would learn that she was back at her desk. This
superb drama would be re-enacted time after time. She was
quite unconscious that there was anything at all unusual
there would come the day which would be her last, it seemed
right that we of AA should privately present Sister with
some tangible token that could, even a little, communicate
to her the depth of our love. Remembering her insistence,
in respect of the Akron plaque, that she would not really
like any public attention, I simply sent word that I'd like
to come to Cleveland for a visit, and casually added that
should her health permit, we might take supper together
in the company of a few of her stalwart AA friends and co-workers.
Besides, it was her fiftieth year of service in her community.
the appointed evening, we foregathered in one of the small
dining rooms at Charity Hospital. Plainly delighted, Sister
arrived. She was barely able to walk. Being old-timers all,
the dinner hour was spent in telling tales of other days.
For, her part, Sister regaled us with stories of St. Thomas
and with cherished recollections of Anne and co-founder
Dr. Bob. It was unforgettable.
Before Sister became too tired we addressed ourselves to
our main project. >From New York, I had brought an illuminated
scroll. Its wording was in the form of a letter addressed
by me to Sister, and it was written on behalf of our AA
Fellowship worldwide. I stood up, read the scroll aloud,
and then held the parchment for her to see. She was taken
by complete surprise and could scarcely speak for a time.
In a low voice she finally said, "Oh, but this is too
much - this is too good for me."
richest reward of the evening was of course Ignatia's delight;
a joy unbounded the moment we assured her that our gift
need not be publicized; that if she wished to stow it away
in her trunk we would quite understand.
then seemed that this most memorable and moving evening
was over. But there was to be another inspiring experience.
Making light of her great fatigue, Sister insisted that
we all go up to Rosary Hall, there to make a late round
of the AA ward. This we did, wondering if any of us would
ever again see her at work in the divine vocation to which
she had given her all. For each of us this was the end of
an epoch; I could think only of her poignant and oft-repeated
saying, "Eternity is now."
scroll given to Sister may now be seen at Rosary Hall. This
is the inscription:
FOR SISTER MARY IGNATIA
ON THE OCCASION OF HER GOLDEN
e of Alcoholics Anonymous look upon you as the finest friend
and the greatest spirit we may ever know.
We remember your tender ministrations to us in the days
when AA was very young. Your partnership with Dr. Bob in
that early time has created for us a spiritual heritage
of incomparable worth.
all the years since, we have watched you at the bedside
of thousands. So watching, we have perceived ourselves to
be the beneficiaries of that wondrous light which God has
always sent through you to illumine our darkness. You have
tirelessly tended our wounds; you have nourished us with
your unique understanding and your matchless love. No greater
gifts of Grace than these shall we ever have.
Speaking for AA members throughout the world, I say: "May
God abundantly reward you according to your blessed works
- now and forever!'
March 25,1964, Bill W.
Grapevine August 1966