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The “Angel of Hope” behind Alcoholics Anonymous


Sister Ignatia Gavin - Cause for Canonization

Aliénor Goudet - published on 12/11/21

Meet Sister Ignatia Gavin, the Catholic religious sister who played a vital role in founding AA.

It’s 1935 in Akron, Ohio. Sister Ignatia Gavin finally leaves the Mother Superior’s office. She heaves a heavy sigh that echoes through the halls of St. Thomas Hospital in Akron. For the third time this month, the religious has been reprimanded for treating an alcoholic at the hospital. 

At this point in the early 20th century, medicine doesn’t recognize alcoholics as full-fledged patients. Hardly any hospitals accept them. And when they suffer delirium tremens, a state of frightening delirium that accompanies withdrawal, they are quickly relegated to the psychiatric asylum. They don’t belong among the patients. And after all, didn’t they choose to indulge in alcohol?

An advocate for treating alcoholics

Since the hospital was founded in 1928, Sister Ignatia has worked in the admissions office. Since the institute is run by her congregation, she thinks she can finally help people with all kinds of addictions. But even her Augustinian sisters criticize her for “wasting” the hospital’s resources on alcoholics.

Ignatia thinks of Andy. He’s a 40-year-old worker who lost his wife last winter. Since then, he’s drowned his sorrows in drink. Today, his son took him to St. Thomas in the middle of a crisis. Ignatia could not bring herself to send him to the asylum. How can you abandon such poor people in the prison of their misfortune? They take refuge in alcohol to the point of destroying their bodies and their souls, and the hospitals only accept them when their body is already too damaged. 

A nurse calls Sister Ignatia to the office of Dr. Robert H. Smith. Known as Dr. Bob, he’s a tall man with a stern look. He’s one of Sister Ignatia’s few allies in her fight. An alcoholic himself, he’s been trying to escape his addiction for several years. The two friends often have conversations about this evil.

The “Angel of Hope”

Today, a glint of enthusiasm shines in the surgeon’s eyes. In that look, Sister Ignatia guesses that something big is coming. Dr. Bob tells her about his friend, William Wilson, known as Bill W. After many years of alcoholism, Bill says he had a mystical experience, which not only has converted him but has also healed him of his affliction. Dr. Bob and Bill have decided to create a program for alcoholics, and they tell Sister Ignatia that they need her support.

Ignatia doesn’t hesitate. That same year, St. Thomas officially admits its first alcoholic patient. Thanks to Smith and Wilson, Ignatia opens a center to house alcoholics in Akron. Inspired by the thoughts of St. Ignatius of Loyola, she cares for the health and soul of her patients. 

Thanks to her kindness and humility, she is called “the Angel of Hope.” Many patients are converted, touched by Ignatia’s faith and goodness. She also discovers the benefits of coffee in treating patients.

She is often quoted as saying, “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.”

Smith and Wilson are now recognized as the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, but Sister Ignatia’s role was also vital. It’s estimated that she alone cared for over 15,000 alcoholics.

Sister Ignatia passed away in 1966. An anonymous source said of her, “If the Catholic Church does not canonize her, the Protestants will make her a saint.”

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