and sobriety came to this man whose life had been darkened
alcoholism. Through his experiences, he has helped bring
hope to others.
of the shadows
Father Ralph S. Pfau and Al Hirshberg
woke up in a room completely devoid of furniture except
for a chair, a table and the cot I was lying on.
you want some breakfast, Father?”
I blinked my eyes. Standing in front of me, with a breakfast
tray in his hand, was a brother.
am I?” I asked.
at the Alexian Brothers Sanitarium, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.”
did I get here?”
day is this?”
I had left Indianapolis on Tuesday.
The brother set the tray down and left, closing the door
behind him. He didn’t lock it.
What happened? Where have I been? I was headed west. How
did I end up here?
I remember a letter from the bishop, removing me as pastor
of St. Ann’s parish and ordering me to the sanitarium
at Oshkosh. I remember a drinking session with a friend
in the parish house. I remember loading my car and leaving
Indianapolis and drinking along the way.
Only, I was going to drive to the West Coast.
I never found out the whole story to my strange odyssey.
A nephew of mine, who was stationed at an Army base in
Milwaukee, later gave me a fragment of information.
It seems that I phoned him from Chicago and told him I’d
be in Milwaukee the next day. And the next evening, we
had dinner and a few drinks together. He said he knew
I’d been drinking, but had no idea that I’d
blacked out. I had seemed perfectly rational in everything
I said. I had told him nothing about myself except that
I was on a trip.
The rest of the trip is an absolute blank to this day.
I lay on my cot in the sanitarium, I tried to recall what
had made me change my mind about going to the West Coast.
I didn’t want to come here. And I don’t intend
to stay. This solitude is oppressive. I’ve got to
get out of here.
I dressed and went into the administration office, and
told the brother that I wasn’t going to stay.
course, legally, we can’t hold you,” he said.
“You’re free to go. Naturally, that would
result in your suspension.”
If I stay, I may never get out. If I leave, I’ll
I say Mass?” I asked.
no. You don’t say Mass. The rule of the sanitarium
is you do not say Mass until our bishop gives you permission.”
I be allowed to go out?” I asked pettishly.
permission,” he said. “You may go into town
once a month if one of the brothers is with you.”
about my car?”
are not to use it. Your bishop has given orders that you
are never again to drive a car without his permission.
We can sell it for you,” he said, “or if you
prefer, you may designate a friend to sell it.”
The rest of the day is a blank, but I remember the night.
Somewhere along the latter part of the evening, my mind
cleared considerably. I was deeply resentful, and almost
all of my resentment was directed at the bishop of Indianapolis.
He’s the cause of everything. He sent me here. He’ll
keep me here. He won’t let me say Mass. He won’t
let me drive my car. He won’t let me live a normal
life. He won’t even let me be free. I’ve lost
my parish, my friends, my car, my liberty, my self-respect-everything.
And it’s all the bishop’s fault.
I paced and sat and lay down and looked out a darkened
window and smoked and stewed and worried. And, gradually,
as the night progressed, my resentment turned to self-pity.
It’s my own fault. I knew I wasn’t worthy
of being a priest when I was a seminarian. And I’ve
proved it a thousand times ever since.
I blamed everything in the world for my troubles-everything
but alcohol-with the resentment aimed, in the last analysis,
By dawn, I was hopelessly convinced that there was nothing
anyone, anywhere, could do to straighten me out.
Later that morning, a doctor came to visit me. Once again,
I recited the long unhappy story of my career. All I had
to do was say aloud everything that I had been repeating
to myself only a few hours earlier. The longer I talked,
the more I seemed to break with reality.
This is not me. This is somebody else-some other Ralph
Pfau. It is he-not I –who needs help. I feel very
sorry for him. He has lost everything. I wish I could
do something for him.
I kept on saying one thing and thinking another. The words
were automatic, coming from the mouth of a stranger; the
thoughts were the real me.
I came to the end, the doctor said, “Father, there
were 12 full bottles of liquor in your bag. Do you drink
Twelve full bottles? That other Ralph Pfau left Indianapolis
with 12 bottles. How much more liquor did he have to buy
to fill the bag with fresh bottles?
much,” I said.
telling the truth. It’s the other Ralph Pfau who
does all the drinking.
you ever drink to excess, Father-ever in your life?”
No, Doctor. Not ever.
It was somebody else who sat all morning, waiting for
12 o’clock to come so he could have his first drink,
somebody else who headed for the West Coast with a case
of whisky in his bag, somebody else who blacked out from
drinking on the way.
I was detached from everything. I had nothing to do with
this man who was asking me questions.
the doctor said, “I think you’re a schizophrenic.”
had never heard the term and I didn’t want to know
what it meant. I was afraid that it meant something very
the doctor said, “but I think we can help you. We’re
going to try shock treatments.”
And I said, “Fine, Doctor.”
The following day, I was taken to another hospital-the
Winnebago State Hospital for the mentally ill.
I had been admitted, a big male nurse handed me a shapeless
white garment and said, “Take off your clothes,
Father, and put this on. I’ll be back for you in
a few minutes.
He returned shortly and took me to another room. This
one was small –about 10 feet by 12-and, because
of the equipment and all the people in it, it looked smaller.
There was a table in the center, similar to an operating-room
table, but wider and heavier. Within easy reach, with
wires sticking out of them, were two attachments that
looked a bit like earphones. They swayed gently back and
forth. A doctor stood at the head of the table, with a
woman nurse beside him. Halfway down the table were two
of the biggest, most powerful-looking men I ever saw.
I was petrified.
story was written for publication with the permission
of Father Pfau’s ecclesiastical superiors.
lie down on the table, please,” the doctor said.
I stretched out, putting my head on an uncovered pillow.
Somebody rubbed grease on my temples, and somebody else
reached for the attachments that hung from a box on the
table. They were fitted over my head, one on each side.
They’re going to electrocute me. Oh, God, get me
out of here.
I tried to get up on one elbow, but I couldn’t move.
One arm was pinioned by each of the burly attendants.
I tried to move my feet, but they wouldn’t budge
either. The male nurse was leaning on them.
Terrified, I looked up into the eyes of the woman nurse.
I tried to say something, but the words stuck in my throat.
She was coming at me with something big and wide and white.
It moved closer and closer to my face; I tried to pull
away from it, but there was nowhere to go.
your mouth!” The nurse spoke sharply, as she poked
the white apparition at me. “Now bite!” I
clamped by teeth together. I felt engulfed in a blinding
white flash that seemed to consume me, inside and out,
from head to foot. That was the last thing I knew.
was sitting on a cot in a darkened room when I came to
my senses. I shook my head for a few minutes, then looked
around. The woman nurse was standing beside me.
do you feel, Father?” the nurse asked.
guess I’m all right. Only, I don’t remember
will all come back,” she assured me.
Gradually, in the next few days, practically everything
came back into focus except the shock treatment itself
and the events immediately leading up to it. I didn’t
recall those details for months.
After about three weeks, when the shock treatments were
over, I was given permission to say Mass again. But it
was many more weeks until my nerves quieted down to a
point where I could look on life objectively. I realize
now that I had had a narrow escape from what amounted
to complete oblivion. This was my fourth nervous breakdown.
For the rest of the summer and early fall of 1943, I lived
a quiet, relaxed life at the sanitarium. And in October,
I was released, with an order from the bishop to report
to Indianapolis directly to the chancery office to see
are you, Ralph?” the bishop asked, quietly.
He sighed. “I wonder how long you’ll stay
that way. Well, I’m going to give you one more chance.
You can go to St. Joan of Arc parish and live there a
while.” “Frankly,” he added. “I
think you’re hopeless.”
It was not until years later that I realized that the
bishop was trying to shock me into positive action. But
at the time….
Hopeless. I can’t win. What’s the use of trying.
So I didn’t try. One week later, I blacked out again-from
For the first time in my conscious thinking, it slowly
began to dawn on me that maybe alcohol was my primary
problem. I knew that I had other problems too, and I felt
they were more important. However, I now began to think
that perhaps I should try to get the alcohol problem straightened
I forced myself to carry out my parish duties. I longed
for a drink, yet did not dare to take one.
If I take a drink now, I might blackout again. But I’ve
got to have a drink. How long can I keep this up?
I couldn’t sleep at all one night. Finally, I got
up, went over to the window and stared out at the sleeping
city. I was standing there when the rectory phone rang.
It was two o’clock.
husband is dying, Father. Can you come right over? My
son will pick you up in a few minutes.”
I went back to my room, dressed, got the Holy Oils and
went out the front door. As I closed it behind me, a car
pulled up. A young man pushed the door open. I got in,
and we drove off.
happened?” I asked.
dad-I’m afraid he dropped dead. The doctor’s
on the way.”
As we got out of the car in front of his house, another
automobile pulled up behind us. The boy led me to the
go in, Father. I’ll hold the door open for the doctor.”
When I walked into the bedroom, a woman was weeping. Her
husband, fully dressed, was stretched out flat on the
floor. I thought he was dead.
Behind me, the doctor already had his bag open and was
filling a needle from a bottle. I moved aside to give
him room. He felt the man’s pulse, rolled up his
sleeve, splashed on some alcohol and shoved the needle
into an arm.
For a minute nothing happened. Then, to my amazement,
the man sat up and looked around.
as I thought. Father,” the doctor said. He’s
had too much liquor and barbitals. He’ll be all
he was dead.”
will be if he doesn’t change his habits.”
Without a word, the man got up, went to the bed and began
to undress. His wife, badly shaken, thanked us both, and
the doctor left.
My head was spinning. I wasn’t listening to the
woman. In spite of what I had just witnessed, I wanted
you at this hour, Father. We appreciate your kindness
followed the woman. As I walked through the living room,
a book on the mantel caught my eye. I picked it up and
riffled the pages.
I borrow this?” I asked.
The name of the book was Alcoholics Anonymous.
I had never heard of Alcoholics Anonymous. I didn’t
know there was such an organization. The book, which expanded
its principles, its aims and the significance of its 12
steps to sobriety, intrigued me. I finished reading it
The following day, I read the book again, and, almost
unconsciously, I memorized the 12 steps:
We admitted we were powerless over alcohol-that our lives
had become unmanageable.
Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could
restore us to sanity.
Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to
the care of God as we understood Him.
Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being
the exact nature of our wrongs.
Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects
Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing
to make amends to them all.
Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except
when to do so would injure them or others.
Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were
wrong, promptly admitted it.
Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious
contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for
knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that
Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of those
steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and
to practice these principles in all our affairs.”
It’s the kind of thing that can be applied to anyone,
no matter what his religion. I’ll bet it helps a
lot of people-particularly those who may have lost their
awareness of God. It’s a good program, for alcoholism.
But I’m not an alcoholic. I’m a priest. I
haven’t lost my awareness of God. This program is
not for me.
But I couldn’t keep my hands off that book. Day
after day, I picked it up and read it. After three or
four weeks, I knew it from cover to cover. And during
that entire period, I didn’t take a drink.
One evening, several weeks after I began reading the book.
I noticed some pamphlets on a side table in the vestibule
of the rectory. On the top pamphlet were printed the words
“Alcoholics Anonymous.” I asked the pastor
who had left them.
Sheerin,” he said. “He’s a fine man.
I think he’s the president of A.A. here in Indianapolis.”
I read the pamphlets. They told stark, simple stories
of despair and hopelessness and terror and defeat, and
suddenly I came to a decision.
looked up Doherty Sheerin’s phone number and called
him. He was at the rectory 15 minutes later. I liked him
on sight. There were strength of character and leadership
in his rather square face, and I felt almost a compulsion
to put myself in his hands and let him steer me any way
he wanted to.
This man will help me.
on your mind, Father?”
I understand you’re president of Alcoholics Anonymous
here in town.”
not president. We don’t have any such thing as president.
Alcoholics Anonymous is just a group of individuals all
faced with the same problem. We only recently began the
Indianapolis group, and I happened to be the first member
see,” I said. “I wonder if you can help me.
I have some personal problems. Of course, mine isn’t
really an alcoholic problem. I never drank very much.
I’m not an alcoholic.”
His smile never left his face.
know what you mean, Father,” he said gently. “All
I can do is pass along a few ideas; then perhaps you can
help yourself. We don’t teach anything in A.A. We
don’t lecture anyone, or tell anybody whether he
is or isn’t an alcoholic. All we do is suggest.
’Take another look at yourself and form your own
don’t you go to a meeting with me?
will ever know,” he continued. “We don’t
tell who attended meetings. We only tell about ourselves.
We can get up and shout about ourselves from the rooftops
for all the world to hear if we want to. But anonymity
respects the other members’ names. So nobody will
know that you are attending the meetings unless you tell
I’ll just look in as a spectator. These people will
think I’m there in my capacity as a priest to help
them out. I’ll go to one meeting, and if I don’t
like it, I won’t go anymore.
next meeting is Thursday night, Father,” Dohr was
saying. “I’ll pick you up at 7:15.”
By Thursday, I had changed my mind a dozen times about
going to the A.A. meeting. But promptly at 7:15, Dohr
arrived, and I drove off with him.
It was a small meeting-only seven people altogether. None
of these men appeared to be in financial difficulties,
nor did they look like drunks, or even ex-drunks. From
all appearances, this could have been a meeting of the
board of directors of a library.
For the next hour, a discussion of various problems of
the alcoholic moved back and forth between Dohr and the
members. I noticed that, before anyone spoke during the
next meeting, he always said, “I’m an alcoholic,”
and I wondered if I would ever be able to do that-if,
that is, I really were an alcoholic. I was still far from
ready to admit that.
I felt better than I had felt in several weeks as we rode
back to the rectory. Dohr asked me how I liked the meeting.
I said, with real enthusiasm
good,” Dohr said. “Now, keep coming back.
Some day, everything will fall into focus.”
But, later, as I lay in bed, the seeds of discouragement
began to grow.
This A.A. is great for laymen. It gives them a new awareness
of God, and that helps to keep them away from drinking.
But I have always had a strong awareness of and faith
in God, and that didn’t keep me from drinking. They
talked about honesty tonight-honesty with themselves and
honesty with other people. I know all about honesty. Honesty
is one of the virtues that any priest adheres to as a
matter of course. So there are two things-awareness of
God and honesty-which are keystones of success in A.A.,
and I have both, but neither stopped me from drinking.
So what can A.A. do for me?
Day after day, I went through the motions of carrying
out my duties at the parish. I didn’t drink, but
I was never free of the vague urge to do so.
Doer called me every day. About all he ever said was,
“How do you feel, Father?” and about all I
ever replied was, “All right-I guess.” But
after a few days, I began to look forward to his calls,
and our conversations lengthened. My jitters always died
down a little after I had talked with him, but it was
never long before they returned.
As the weeks and months passed, I continued to go to Alcoholics
Anonymous meetings, largely because of Doer. He never
asked me if I wanted to go. He simply took it as a matter
of course that I was going, and he always called for me.
In general, the other priests in the rectory approved
of my interest in A.A.. But they knew me and knew my problem.
Whenever I mentioned A.A. to priests outside the parish,
I almost invariably ran into opposition.
priests should join that sort of an organization,”
a priest said to me one day. “You should be able
to get what you need from your Church.”
He expressed the thoughts of the majority. I wondered
if he was right. I could derive the strength to stop drinking
from my Church. I asked Doer about it later.
can, But you won’t,” he said. “It would
be wonderful if you could find the strength to stop drinking
from the Church. But the average alcoholic personality
just won’t. I didn’t-and I’ve always
been devoted to my Church. You’ve not only been
devoted to your Church; you’ve given your life to
it. But you still didn’t get from it alone a solution
for your drinking problem.”
I must have the Church.”
course, you must have the Church. Any good Catholic must
have the Church. A.A. without the Church would be less
effective for us than the Church without A.A. But, in
order to stop drinking, people like you and I must have
both. We need something to help us remove the natural
obstacles to grace, something to keep us convinced we
can’t drink-that we’re still alcoholics.”
Gradually, I became convinced. It took almost a year for
the program to take shape. I began to see how a key principle
of A.A. applied to me, reluctant as I was to admit it.
To the alcoholic, the first thing in his life is that
he cannot drink. This is basic. It may not be his most
important problem. Certainly, my neurotic tendencies,
which first manifested themselves at St. Meinrad’s
Seminary, before I had ever taken a drink, were more important.
If an alcoholic has a deadly disease, the disease is more
But, regardless of his other problems, the first thing
an alcoholic must do is stop drinking. Once he has done
that, he can tackle the other problems. But if he doesn’t
do it, the other problems not only will remain unsolved,
but will become intensified.
In August of 1945, I got a letter from the bishop, telling
me that my friend, Father Ambrose Sullivan, who had been
appointed pastor of Holy Cross parish in Indianapolis,
had asked for me as his assistant.
This was first direct contact with the bishop since I
had returned from the sanitarium at Oshkosh a year and
a half earlier. I had studiously avoided the chancery,
for I didn’t know how the bishop would feel about
my being in A.A. The letter encouraged me. Obviously,
the bishop must have heard about it and didn’t object,
or he would have said something. I was delighted to join
At just about that time, I had begun to make Twelfth Step
calls. These are visits to people who, faced with the
alcoholic problem, called Alcoholics Anonymous for help.
As far as I knew, the only purpose in making Twelfth Step
calls was to help somebody else try to stay sober. I made
half a dozen calls in about three months, but I might
as well have stayed homes. I couldn’t get anyone
to stay sober.
When I pointed out my lack of success to Dohr, he said,
“You’ve stayed sober yourself, haven’t
you? Insurance against a slip-that’s really the
primary reason for Twelfth Step calls. When I make one,
I say, ‘Now, look, fella, I don’t care if
you die drunk. I’m not interested in that. But I
do care if I die drunk, and that’s the reason I’m
here. Now if you want what I’ve got, I’ll
take all the time in the world to give it to you. Just
give me a call when you’re ready.”
Dohr Sheerin must have sponsored several hundred alcoholics
during the years I knew him in Indianapolis, and most
of them made the grade.
Dohr,” I said, “as a priest, I’ve got
something to offer that the others haven’t. Only,
when I go out on calls, people won’t accept me as
anything but a priest, no matter what I tell them. As
far as they’re concerned, I’m moralizing.”
right, Father,” he said. “You can do a lot
more good in other ways than any of us. The only question
is how to go about it.”
The answer was so obvious that I felt foolish because
I hadn’t thought of it sooner. In the seminary and
as priests, we annually made a retreat. A retreat is a
period of discussion and meditation that normally lasts
from a day to a week end. In a Catholic retreat, there
is a retreat master who gives talks on the dogma and practices
of Catholicism. There is also a regular period for questions
and open discussion. People in all walks of life attend
retreats and gain great peace and solace from them.
about having a retreat for alcoholics?” I suggested.
“After all, the whole idea of a retreat is just
to pause and think things over in company with other people
having the same idea in mind. We could make it exclusively
on A.A. We wouldn’t go into the question of religion
at all. And we wouldn’t confine it to Catholics.”
Dohr was enthusiastic about the idea, and so was the bishop
when I wrote for his permission. Since I had once served
as chaplain for the Little Sisters of the Poor, I asked
them for use of their facilities. They told me they’d
be delighted. The retreat was a success in all aspects.
We had 67 men there, only about 20 of whom were Catholics.
The talks were all strictly about A.A. and were well received
by Protestants and Catholics.
The one-day retreat was so helpful that the members urged
me to arrange a longer one. Our first full week-end retreat
was held at St. Joseph'’ College near Rensselaer,
Ind. There were about 90 people there, about 89 per cent
of whom were non Catholics.
To this day, we have a men’s retreat at St. Joseph’s
every year. We have retreats for women as well as for
men; they are held separately in various places throughout
the country. Our average attendance, which varies in different
parts of the country, still runs about 65 to 70 per cent
By late 1945, I had not had a drink in two years. When
I arose every morning, I asked divine help in remaining
sober for the next 24 hours (as I do today), and every
day I remain sober. My nerves were behaving, and my jitters
were gone. I was in good physical condition and enjoying
more peace of mind and satisfaction in my work than I
had ever known.
I had full confidence in the A.A. program, but there was
one fact I still couldn’t accept completely. That
was the theory that alcoholism is a disease. I suspected
it was a moral weakness that had caused me to drink.
I had learned that there are sharply defined differences
between an alcoholic and a drunk. I knew that alcoholism
had the element of compulsion and drunkenness did not.
The quantity of liquor consumed and resulting intoxication
might be exactly the same, but the motive id different.
The alcoholic drinks because he has to. The drunkard drinks
because he wants to. Once the alcoholic starts drinking,
he can’t stop. The drunkard can stop whenever he
feels like it. When the alcoholic drinks, all he can think
about is where he will get his next drink. When the drunkard
drinks, he wants only to get high and enjoy himself. The
alcoholic can’t get liquor out of his mind. The
drunkard can forget about it at will, if, indeed, he ever
gives it much thought to begin with.
the alcoholic wakes up in the morning, he’s got
the jitters and an uncontrollable craving for a drink
to relieve them. When the drunkard wakes up in the morning,
he feels terrible, but the only craving he has is for
something to get his mind off his hang-over. The last
thing he wants is a drink. If the alcoholic doesn’t
have his drink, he can’t work or do anything else.
The drunkard might take something to settle his stomach,
but he can always manage to drag himself off to work.
He won’t have a happy day, but he won’t have
a craving for liquor, either.
Of course, a drunkard can develop into an alcoholic. Most
alcoholics started out as social drinkers. But who knows
where the responsibility for his becoming an alcoholic
lies? I had been taught that it’s his own responsibility.
It is the normal reaction of any clergyman to accept this
This was why I, as a priest, found it so hard to accept
any other theory. As far as I could see, I became an alcoholic
because I drank too much; it was not that I drank too
much because I was an alcoholic. It was as simple as that.
And, no matter how often Dohr tried to tell me otherwise,
I refused to believe him.
I told alcoholics every day that they were sick, but I
didn’t, I couldn’t, believe that this was
Not until the day I nearly slipped myself.
When saying Mass, a priest uses wine in the chalice. This,
in our belief becomes the Blood of Christ at the moment
of Consecration. Although the substance of the wine is
changed, the action of alcohol can have the same effect
on the human system after the Consecration as before.
I learned early after I joined A.A. that, as a priest-alcoholic,
I must take a minimum of wine at Mass. The minimum for
validity is about two teaspoonfuls. Medically, an alcoholic
would be disturbed if he took enough alcohol to penetrate
his blood stream or brain cells. Two teaspoonfuls of ordinary
Mass wine would not bother the worst alcoholic. While,
contrary to public opinion, it is a fermented drink, it
usually has a very low alcohol content, because the Church
does not permit Mass wine to be fortified.
Commercial wine, on the other hand, is well fortified
with grape alcohol. It is usually heavier than Mass wine,
and can cause a definite reaction if taken by an alcoholic.
A few of the heavier-type Mass wines approach this commercial
I had always been careful about the amount of wine at
Mass, and I never had a reaction from it after I joined
A.A. But one morning, at Holy Cross, I knew the moment
I consumed the Holy Species that this was not average
Mass wine. I felt a sudden urge to keep on drinking, a
compulsive craving that blocked out all reason.
Mass was over, I hurried to the kitchen.
there anything different about the Mass wine we used this
morning?” I asked the housekeeper.
Father,” she said. “A salesman left this sample
bottle, and I used it in the cruet.”
I looked at the label. The wine, although Mass wine, had
an alcoholic content of 22 per cent.
I wanted a drink. I shuddered as I left the kitchen. I
wanted a drink.
I was scared-as scared as I had ever been in my life.
This was not just a casual desire. This was a terrible,
compulsive craving that overwhelmed me.
If I don’t have a drink, I’ll go crazy. I
forced myself to the telephone. With shaking hands, I
picked it up and called Dohr Sheerin.
I want a drink.”
Father,” he drawled, “I’m glad you called.
I told him. I guess I wasn’t very coherent, but
he didn’t interrupt me. Then, I said, “Dohr,
I’m frightened. I’ve got to have a drink.
I can’t understand how this happened. It’s
never happened before. I’ve been dry two years,
and now I feel as though I’d never been dry. A little
wine at the Mass-that’s all it took.”
little wine has set off a lot of benders, Father,”
Dohr said. He was still drawling, talking in a slow casual
manner. “You know,” he went on, “You
were very wise in calling me. I know just how you feel.
You’ve had a reaction because the wine was too heavy.
But you know you’re really all right, and you know
you’ll get over this craving. You’ve been
in A.A. a couple of years now. You know the questions,
and you know the answers. And you know you can’t
take another drink, because if you do, there’ll
be no stopping. You’ll get the jitters and you’ll
fall apart, and you’ll have to get dried out all
over again. And you know what that means.”
I’ve got to hang up now. I’m going to get
a minute, Father.” Dohr’s voice was softly,
gently persuasive. “Before you hang up, I want to
tell you something. I’ve got a couple of tickets
to the Notre Dame game at South Bend Saturday. I want
you to come and see it with me. They’ve got a great
team this year, Father-“
want a drink.”
you remember the shock treatments, Father? Do you remember
all the sanitariums? Do you remember Snake Run? Do you
remember what you were like two years ago, before you
came into A.A.? Do you realize how far you’ve come
in those two years? Do you realize how far you’re
going? You don’t really want a drink, Father-“
I do-I do, Dohr. I must have a drink-now.”
you don’t, not really, Father. You’re too
experienced in A.A. to want a drink. You’ve seen
too many people sweating out a living death while they
wait for the alcohol to leave their systems. You’ve
been through that yourself a dozen times. You know what
it’s like. You don’t ever intend to go through
it again. Your too intelligent for that, Father. Do you
remember how you used to insist to me that, even though
you told others that alcoholism was a disease, you really
thought it was a moral fault that could be controlled?
Now what do you think, Father?”
taking,” I said. My throat was dry and my voice
cracked and little rivulets of sweat were gushing out
of every pore in my body.
Dohr kept talking. HE jumped from one subject to another,
stalling me off from leaving the phone. And I listened.
Then he said, “Father, it’s been 10 minutes
since you’ve said you wanted a drink.”
So he talked for 10 minutes more.
it’s 20 minutes, Father. Do you want to talk?”
minutes-yes-yes, Dohr, I want to talk.” I could
feel the saliva in my mouth and throat, and I wasn’t
perspiring so much.
about the next retreat, Father? Is everything all arranged?”
Now I talked for 10 or 15 minutes. Dohr asked me all sorts
of questions, and I answered them.
Then, I said, “I’m all right now, Dohr.”
don’t want a drink anymore?”
Dohr, I don’t want a drink.”
right, Father. Call me if you need me.”
We both hung up. I looked at my watch. We had been talking
nearly two solid hours. And now I knew that alcoholism
was not exclusively a moral problem. Now I knew it was
a disease. If I could stick to this conviction without
ever rationalizing the “need” for the first
drink. I knew my alcoholic troubles would be over.
In 1946, I was asked to give the talk at an A.A. meeting
in Cincinnati, by a man who had attended one of our retreats.
There were more than a hundred people present, filling
the little meeting hall to the doors. I gave a talk on
the spiritual side of Alcoholics Anonymous. There was
nothing personal in my talk. When it was over, the chairman
opened the floor for questions.
A little fellow in the back of the room got up and said,
“Father, that was a fine talk. But, Father, what
do you know about this problem? Are you an alcoholic?”
I swallowed. This was the moment I dreaded. Then, in a
voice I hoped was steady, I said, “Yes, I’m
the man said, “tell us about it.”
So, for the first time, I told the story of my alcoholic
life in an open meeting. I told of my first nervous breakdown,
my first drink, my subsequent breakdowns, the fluctuations
of my alcoholic appetite, my experiences in various hospitals
and sanitariums, my frequent troubles with the bishop-everything,
in fact, that I could think of. I talked for about half
After I sat down, I felt a deep relief, a relief from
all the doubts that had assailed me ever since I first
joined A.A., as though, with the first full admission
before other alcoholics, I had removed the last of the
blocks that seemed to separate me from them. There was
nothing more for me to hide, either from them or from
myself. Now, at last, I was one of them.
next time I was asked to speak at a meeting, I stood squarely
on my feet, looked around at the expectant faces in front
of me and said firmly, “My name is Father Pfau.
I am a member of the Indianapolis group of Alcoholics
Anonymous, and I am an alcoholic.
I have been telling my story to alcoholics all over America
ever since. I will venture to say I have delivered it
In 1947, the new archbishop of Indianapolis sent for me.
“I have heard about you work,” he said. “How
would you like to be relieved of your pastoral duties
so that you can devote full time to Alcoholics Anonymous?
Of course,” he continued, “the big factor
here is the financing of your own living.”
might be a problem, because A.A. is not really an organization,”
I said. “It specifies that it has no dues or fees.
It is not allied with any sect, faith or denomination.
It has no interest in politics, and it neither opposes
nor endorses any causes. The only requirement for membership
is an honest desire to stop drinking. Our primary purpose
is to stay sober and to help other alcoholics achieve
and maintain sobriety. If I were to give full time to
A.A., I would have to do so as an alcoholic, as just another
member of A.A.”
as a priest, you would have the respect of others,”
the archbishop said. “And I feel that your retreat
work is important enough to people of all faiths throughout
the country to warrant your giving full time to it. When
you have thought it over, let me know.”
was delighted when I told him about it. “Don’t
worry, Father,” he said. “We’ll find
a way to finance you.”
The next day, Dohr and I went to see A. Keifer Mayer,
a close friend of Dohr’s. He was then vice-president
(he is now president) of the Kiefer-Stewart Drug Company,
a large wholesale house in Indianapolis. Mr. Mayer is
neither a Catholic nor an alcoholic. But he was a friend
of both the archbishop and his predecessor and had always
had great admiration for what Alcoholics Anonymous had
done for Doherty Sheerin. Dohr explained the situation.
came to the right person,” Mr. Mayer said. “This
is the finest idea I’ve heard for a long time. I’m
all for it.” He reached for his checkbook and wrote
a check to cover my expenses for the first year.
The archbishop released me from my parish duties on Christmas
Day, 1947, and I started mapping out plans for retreats
beginning in June. Dohr urged me to take a vacation before
they started. The more I thought about the idea, the better
I liked it.
In April, I decided to go to Los Angeles. The night before
I left, Dohr gave me a copy of the A.A. directory, a book
that lists groups in various parts of the country. I packed
it in my bag.
It was a beautiful spring day when I left Indianapolis,
but by the time I got to Texarkana, on the second day,
the weather was hot and sticky. It was even hotter driving
on to Fort Worth. Texas was in the throes of a dust storm.
Driving was uncomfortable, and to make it worse, I discovered
that, miles back, I had taken the wrong road.
I drove on to a place called Wichita Falls, Texas, and
checked into a hotel. The room was flecked with dust,
and the bellboy advised me to keep the window closed.
What a day! What a miserable day! Here I am more than
a thousand miles from home. I’m tired, dusty, uncomfortable,
hungry-and thirsty. I “need” a drink. I’ll
have a cocktail before dinner. I haven’t had a drink
in nearly four years. I know I’m O.K. now I’ll
have just one, and I won’t tell a soul about it,
not even Dohr.
I took a cold shower, and all the while, I thought of
the drink I would soon have.
One drink-one drink-one drink.
I opened my bag for clean linen, and the first thing I
saw was the A.A. directory. There was a Wichita Falls
group listed. I called the number and a man answered.
a stranger in town,” I explained. “Do you
have A.A. meetings here?”
indeed,” the voice said. “We’re having
one tonight, and you are welcome.”
I’ll go over and meet a new group of people. I’ll
see how A.A. works here, and if they want too know, I’ll
tell them how A.A. works in Indianapolis.
I forgot all about the drink. It was my last near slip.
From that day to this, I never again had a desire for
A speaking tour in 1948-49 took me to California, Arizona,
New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, North and South Carolina,
Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee.
I dovetailed the talks so that no one group would have
to bear a heavy burden of expense. The are no fees in
A.A., and I have never accepted any. Each group has always
been free to give whatever it could afford toward my over-all
expenses. No minimum is ever set. I accepted support from
Mr. Mayer for two years. After that, I usually managed
to balance out, although I have returned to Indianapolis
in the red several times.
travels have brought me many friends. They have also brought
me many adventures: some of them amusing, some sad and
many deeply satisfying.
One night in Los Angeles, I called the A.A. number that
was listed in the directory. The man who answered invited
me over to the clubhouse. I did not identify myself as
a priest. When I arrived, he was ice cold.
an Orangeman,” he said. The Orangemen, who come
from the North of Ireland, oppose Catholics.
all right,” I said. “You are a member of A.A.,
too, aren’t you? Well, so am I.”
mean you’re an alcoholic?”
That night, at the meeting, he stood up and said, “If
my folks in Ireland knew what I am about to do, they’d
blacklist me forever. But that doesn’t bother me.
I think maybe this is one of the wonderful things about
A.A. Denominations mean nothing as far as the program
is concerned. We aren’t Catholics or Protestants
or Jews – we’re all just alcoholics. So, it
is with real pleasure that this Orangeman introduces a
Catholic priest, to give us a talk.”
While my work consumed most of my energy, it did not resolve
an old problem. For years, I had had deep-seated doubts
about the validity of my ordination into the priesthood.
I had never consulted anyone. I was afraid to seek an
expert opinion, for fear that my priesthood might really
be invalid. One day, I mentioned the matter to Dohr.
always doubted it,” I told him. “I’m
not sure I wanted to become a priest in the first place.
And I was under tremendous pressure when I received the
diaconate. I don’t think anyone can validly receive
major orders when he is under pressure.”
A canonist is a priest well-versed in cannon law-a sort
of ecclesiastical lawyer. When Dohr and I went to see
Father Donovan, I told him the whole story of my doubts
and fears at the time of my diaconate.
really concerned about two things,” I told Father
Donovan, “whether these pressures caused invalidity
of my diaconate, and-if this is so-whether my priesthood
is invalid too.”
you have pressure and anxiety before your ordination to
the priesthood, or only before the diaconate?” Father
before the diaconate.”
have nothing to worry about, Father,” he said, smiling.
“Even if the diaconate was not valid, the ordination
to the priesthood was. This is the law of the Church.
You are perfectly all right.”
I may never be sure whether I wanted to be a priest, but
now I can be sure God wanted me to be a priest.
took up residence at the Good Shepherd Convent in Indianapolis
in 1950. Little did the good sisters there dream what
the next few years would bring. Today, the convent is
a beehive of activity. Typing, printing, filing and answering
telephones are now part of the daily routine for three
of the Magdalen nuns. They do their work in a large office
and a printing room.
My one room living quarters serve as my private office
by day and my bedroom by night. Two private telephone
lines lead into this room, and both can also be switched
to the Sister Magdalen’s office. Calls come from
all parts of the world-and at any hour of the day or night-from
alcoholics, people interested in alcoholics, and friends.
Some of the callers are sober, some are sobering up and
some are not sober. A few years back. A lady not quite
sober called me from Paris. She just wanted to talk-at
$12 for three minutes. It took her three-quarters of an
hour to tell me what was on her mind.
When I am away from Indianapolis, a nun. My secretary,
answers the phone. She is acquiring a postgraduate education
and is adding many words to her vocabulary, some good,
some not so good. At night, she turns the phone on automatic
Each day brings an average of 50 pieces of mail. Each
year, the demands on my time at the office have grown
to such an extent that I have been forced to gradually
cut down on the number of speaking engagements. There
are hundreds of invitations from groups I do not have
the time to visit. I plan to continue my retreats as long
as I am physically able to do so. However, I also want
to give more and more time to my writing and to my own
people in and around Indianapolis.
In 1953, Doherty Sheerin died. I think about him often,
and have said Mass for him many times. I seldom give a
talk that I do not mention my debt to him.
I have traveled nearly 750,000 miles in 10 years of working
with alcoholics. I have spoken before nearly 200,000 members
of Alcoholics Anonymous at retreats, meetings and conventions,
and personally discussed their problems with more than
10,000 alcoholics. Many ask me if A.A. is the only avenue
of recovery open to alcoholics.
This is what my experience has taught me: The approach
of the Twelve Steps, used in an appropriate group, constitutes
the best means available today to give sobriety to the
alcoholic. However, I feel that the present structural
setup of Alcoholics anonymous is very imperfect. It tends
far too much to organization, and this, in dealing with
spiritual entities, could prove disastrous. To me, the
greatest security for A.A. is in the preservation of its
autonomy down to each member. Authority in A.A. would
Many people have asked me how they can tell if they will
develop into alcoholics. That’s not an easy question
to answer because so many factors are involved. The person
who drinks for pleasure today may be drinking tomorrow
because he must. The person who wakes up with a hang-over
and wants no part of alcohol this year may wake up with
a craving for liquor a year or two from now. But, by the
same token, the person who drinks for pleasure now may
be drinking for pleasure for the rest of his life. He
may wake up with a hang-over every morning, but never
become an alcoholic, because he can stop drinking whenever
he feels like it and can also moderate his drinking when
he chooses to.
experience, dealing with alcoholics both in passing and
under intimate circumstances, is that the only static
factor is the element of increase. If a person who has
been drinking at least three years (a shorter period cannot
give a conclusive result) finds finds that he is drinking
increasingly more alcohol increasingly more often, he
is probably on the road to alcoholism. On the other hand,
if a person got drunk three times a week ten, five or
three years ago, and he still gets drunk three times a
week, the chances are he’s not, and never will be,
If you are an alcoholic, you cannot discipline yourself
into moderate drinking. This is why we in A.A. avoid the
first drink. When we succeed in doing that, we stay dry.
Why did I ever drink? I don’t really know. I don’t
believe any alcoholic knows.
Will I ever take another drink? Again, I don’t really
know. Only God knows the future. I don'’ think I
will ever drink again, and, at present, I have no desire
for a drink.
There is a saying among some Alcoholics Anonymous groups
that “A.A. brings about an expulsion of a compulsion
by a Higher Power-by Almighty God.”
I am sure of only one thing-all that I am, and all that
I have achieved, is from God. I had nothing to do with
it. God did it all. So, too, my future is entirely in
His Hands; mine is only the footwork.
BY FATHER RALPH PFAU AND AL HIRSHBERG. CONDENSED FROM
THE FORTHCOMING BOOK, “PRODIGAL SHEPHERD”
TO BE PUBLISHED BY J.B. LIPPINCOTT CO.
Look, March 18, 1958)