Sister Ignatia: Catholic Pioneer of 'Tough Love'

During the development of Alcoholics Anonymous in the late 1930s and early 1940s, one of the most influential pioneers was a Catholic nun. Sister Mary Ignatia Gavin of the Sisters of Charity of Saint Augustine was not an alcoholic, but she helped to start the first successful medical treatment program for alcoholism. Her story is told lovingly by Mary C. Darrah in Sister Ignatia: Angel of Alcoholic Anonymous (Loyola University Press, 1992). Della Gavin was born in Ireland. When she was seven, her family came to America and settled in northern Ohio. She became a musician and supported her family by teaching piano lessons. After entering the convent in 1914, she continued to teach music and became a music director for her community. Due to overwork and stress, Sister Ignatia suffered a nervous breakdown and ulcers in the late 1920s. During her treatment, her doctor realized that it was not enough to treat the ulcers. The underlying causes of the breakdown would have to be addressed. Sister Ignatia would have to be willing to examine her life and habits and to make the changes necessary for a permanent recovery. Part of her treatment required that she stop her professional involvement with music. In her new assignment as hospital administrator of St. Thomas Hospital in Akron, she met Dr. Robert S., one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous. Together they developed the first hospital treatment program for alcoholics. It was based solidly on the principles of A.A.: total abstinence from alcohol and drugs, dependence on God, commitment to the Twelve Steps and willingness to help other suffering alcoholics. At a time when alcoholism was regarded as a moral weakness rather than a disease, Sister Ignatia treated her patients with compassion and common sense. Perhaps because of her own descent to the depths of despair, she used her faith and the resources at her disposal to bring hope to others. With "tough love" she made them confront the realities of their addiction. She put them in touch with God and told them to "bend their knees instead of their elbows." Helping others was a major part of recovery as people who had been sober only a few days were put to work welcoming the jittery newcomers. This petite and humble Sister personally helped thousands of alcoholics, including priests and religious. She also counseled countless family members, encouraging them to "pull the curtain on the past" and give their recovering alcoholic another chance. When a newly sober person was being discharged, Sister Ignatia would give him a Sacred Heart badge, and ask him to promise to return it to her before reaching for the first drink. Acceptance of the badge was a symbol of trust and commitment between the patient and Sister Ignatia, and it helped many to avoid impulsive relapses. A.A. still gives medallions to commemorate sobriety or as tangible encouragement to try the A.A. way of life. In keeping with A.A.’s tradition of anonymity and humility, Sister Ignatia requested that her name not be used in a memorial plaque presented by A.A. to St. Thomas Hospital. She said simply that all healing at the hospital was due to the grace of God and the community of her sisters. At her funeral, her true memorial was in the thousands of grateful recovering people who publicly paid their respects to Sister Ignatia, the angel of Alcoholic Anonymous. Mary D. is a Catholic member of Alcoholics Anonymous. Questions or comments may be sent to Mary D., c/o the Arlington Catholic HERALD, 200 N. Glebe Rd. Suite 607, Arlington, Va. 22203. Copyright ?1997 Arlington Catholic Herald, Inc. All rights reserved.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016