Saturday, September 23, 2017

Remembering the "Angel of Hope" for Alcoholics

A decade after the death of Venerable Matt Talbot,
Alcoholic Anonymous was founded.
One of the key figures in the early years of Alcoholics Anonymous was a non-alcoholic known simply as Sister Ignatia.  As a hospital admissions officer in the 1930’s in Akron, Ohio, Sr. Ignatia befriended Dr. Bob Smith, co-founder of AA, and courageously arranged for the hospitalization of alcoholics at a time when alcoholism was viewed as a character weakness rather than a disease.

Sister Ignatia

Patrick McNamara, PhD
"In a 1951 article titled “A Catholic Looks at Alcoholics Anonymous,” author Katherine Neuhaus Haffner wrote:
What is Alcoholics Anonymous? AA is not, as is sometimes supposed, just another temperance movement, a new, fanatical reform crusade. It is a society, operating in groups, that is founded upon spiritual principles, and these principles closely parallel Catholic teaching.
In its reliance on grace, moral inventory taking, its confessional aspect and its emphasis on outreach, Haffner argued, “A Catholic member of AA should be a better Catholic as the result of his affiliation with this society and vice versa.”
Still, many are unaware of the role Catholics played in AA’s early years, or that one of the key figures was a nun from Ohio named Sister Ignatia Gavin, C.S.A. (1889-1966). At St. Thomas Hospital in Akron, she helped Dr. Robert H. Smith, AA’s co-founder, to dispel the notion that alcoholism was a moral defect, rather than a spiritual, mental and physical disease.

Bridget Della Mary Gavin was one of three children born to a farmer in County Mayo, Ireland. Even as a child, she had what her biographer calls a “raw compassion” for alcoholism:
Whenever I would see anyone under the influence of alcoholism, it actually made my heart sick. I would try to offer everlasting reparation to the Sacred Heart of Our Lord to make up for the offense against His Divine Majesty.
In 1896, the Gavins emigrated to Cleveland, Ohio. In an industrial city with a large working-class population, alcoholism was a big problem Parish priests started abstinence societies and young men took a “pledge” not to drink. Bridget graduated from Catholic schools, studied music, and taught music. Although she considered becoming a nun, her mother was opposed to it.

She dated and was even briefly engaged, but the call to religious life prevailed. In 1914, she joined the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine, a community that ran schools and hospitals statewide. At 25, she was considered a “late vocation,” and given the name Ignatia. (Taking a new name signifies that a deep change has occurred in the person entering religious life.)

For many years, Sister Ignatia taught music in Cleveland schools until she suffered a physical breakdown. When she recovered, she transferred to hospital ministry. As her community opened St. Thomas Hospital in Akron in 1928, she was appointed the admitting officer. There she got to know Dr. Robert Holbrook Smith, who, after a bout with alcoholism, had been removed from the rosters of Akron’s more prestigious hospitals.

Beginning in 1934, Sister Ignatia began privately ministering to alcoholics with the help of a young intern, Dr. Thomas Scuderi. She tried to treat alcoholics from both a medical and pastoral standpoint, then an unchartered field. Scuderi recalled: “She was a great influence on my life as a physician. She taught me about loving people.” However, other doctors (and nuns, too) were less than supportive. Sister Ignatia later wrote:
I recalled very distinctly coming to the chapel for prayer shortly after five one morning, only to be met by the night supervisor who told me in unmistakable terms that the next time I admitted a D.T. [Delirium Tremens] to the hospital, I had better stay up all night and run around the corridors after him.
At a time when chronic alcoholics were routinely sent to mental asylums, Sister Ignatia realized that they needed a healing beyond what medicine could provide. At the same time, she noted, hospitals had “little enthusiasm about admitting people who were imbibing too freely.”

On August 16, 1939, Dr. Smith persuaded her to officially admit an alcoholic patient to St. Thomas. Back in 1935, Smith and Bill Wilson, a New York stockbroker, had founded Alcoholics Anonymous as a program of moral and spiritual regeneration. Working with them, Ignatia began the first hospital treatment center for alcoholics, which one historian calls “a model for many chemical treatment programs in the United States.”

Although slight and frail in appearance, her biographer Mary Darrah notes, “A knowing intensity of expression all at once overcame her otherwise fragile features.” Darrah further adds:
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.
One patient recalled: “She saved my life. I found God and sobriety through her. She loved me when there was nothing about me to love. She was AA’s angel.” But hers was a “tough love” that required total abstinence from alcohol and drugs, acknowledgement of one’s dependence on a higher power, commitment to the AA program, and outreach to those still suffering.

Ignatia had a great devotion to the spiritual teachings of St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, particularly his notion of “love through action.” She found a strong parallel between the saint’s writings and AA’s Twelve Steps. She routinely carried around with her a compendium of Ignatius’s thoughts, along with the 14th-century classic The Imitation of Christ. She gave copies of both to patients in the program’s early days. But her spirituality was also ecumenical. To a Protestant patient, she said:
The importance of our religion lies in our making it heavenly to those around us. In its essentials Catholicism is not as far apart as you suppose, from the beliefs of our separated brethren … love can surmount every obstacle.
In 1952, Ignatia opened Rosary Hill Solarium in Cleveland, where she worked for 14 years. During her lifetIgnime, an estimated 15,000 alcoholics came under her care. As a result of her ministry, one author notes, “the alcoholics’ world changed.” At the time of her death in 1966, one commentator said: “If the Catholic Church doesn’t canonize her, the Protestants will make her a saint.” The Sisters poured more than 6,000 cups of coffee at her wake."

Note:  While we will post more about Sr. Ignatia at a later date, three additional references about her are at:

A speech given by Sr. Ignatia at the 25th Anniversary of Alcoholics Anonymous, held in Long Beach California, in 1960 can be heard at

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Meeting Matt Talbot

Such articles as this one help spread introductory information about Venerable Matt Talbot to those who are not yet familiar with his name and/or life.

 "He was a drunk. And now he's on the path to sainthood: Meet Matt Talbot." 
by Meg Hunter-Kilmer 

"Jesus fell three times under his cross to show us what it looks like to persevere in weakness, and Matt Talbot does just the same.
Matt Talbot was a drunk. His father was a drunk. Nearly every one of his brothers was a drunk. He was uneducated and unskilled and died in obscurity. And someday soon, God willing, Venerable Matt Talbot will be a saint.

Talbot (1856-1925) was the second of 12 children born to a working class Dublin family at a time when work and food were scarce and hope scarcer still. Matt’s home life was unstable and his schooling inconsistent. After a few years of sporadic attendance, Matt quit school entirely and entered the workforce. 

His first job was for a wine seller, and the occasional taste he took of the merchandise soon turned him into a full-fledged alcoholic. By the time he was 13, Matt’s life was driven by his need to drink. He spent all his wages on alcohol, even pawning his boots when he didn’t have enough for a pint. Matt’s father beat him and made him change jobs, but it was too late. The alcohol had taken hold of him and, as his father well knew, it wouldn’t let go without a fight.

But Matt didn’t want to fight. He wanted to drink. And only to drink. His friends later said that he “only wanted one thing—the drink; he wouldn’t go with us to a dance or a party or a school function. But for the drink he’d do anything.” For 15 years, Matt begged, borrowed, and stole whatever he needed to feed his addiction, once stealing the fiddle from a blind beggar to sell it for liquor.

Matt was a lost cause—so everybody said. But everybody reckoned without grace. 

Matt Talbot was the life of the party, but one day, when he was 28, he suddenly saw how false his happiness was, how false his friendships. He had been out of work for a few days and had drunk all his wages, so he stood outside a pub waiting for one of his many drinking buddies to offer to buy him a drink. But as one old friend after another passed him by, Talbot began to realize the emptiness of his life.

Disgusted with his friends and himself, he went home, to a mother very surprised to find her son home and sober so early in the day. After dinner, he announced his intention to “take the pledge,” to vow that he would abstain from all alcohol. His mother, whose pessimism was not unfounded, urged him not to make such a vow unless he intended to keep it. 

But Matt’s heart had been seized, first by misery, then by remorse, and soon by love. He made his first confession in years and returned to the Sacraments. He promised sobriety for three months, then six, then for all his life. He worked even harder at his blue-collar jobs and gave the money he would have spent on beer to the poor. He went to Mass daily, lived simply, and performed powerful acts of penance and asceticism. He became a Third Order Franciscan. He taught himself to read so that he could study the Bible and the lives of the Saints. Perhaps most importantly, he never touched a drop of alcohol again.

But he never stopped being an alcoholic; the temptation to drink remained with him. Early into his abstinence he decided never to carry money with him as it was too much of a temptation to go into a pub and buy a pint. After work, as his friends went off to the pub, Talbot went to church; if he didn’t fill his time with something, he knew he would relapse. “Never be too hard on the man who can’t give up drink,” he once said. “It’s as hard to give up the drink as it is to raise the dead to life again. But both are possible and even easy for our Lord. We have only to depend on him.”

On Trinity Sunday, at the age of 69, Matt Talbot was making his way slowly through the streets of Dublin on his way to Mass. His body weakened by decades of hard labor, he collapsed of heart failure and was discovered later, an unidentified elderly man found dead in the street. He died as he had lived, in simple obscurity. But he was born that day into glory.

Venerable Matt Talbot is proof that being a follower of Christ doesn’t make virtue easy, it just makes it possible. Jesus fell three times under his cross to show us what it looks like to persevere in weakness, and Matt Talbot does just the same, an example of what it is to live with an addiction without being ruled by it. 

Let’s ask his intercession for all those suffering from addiction, that God may give them the courage to persevere on the hard road of recovery. Venerable Matt Talbot, pray for us!"

A previous post by Meg that we have noted is available at

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Combating Alcoholism through the Example and Intercession of Matt Talbot

The following selection is an excerpt from Praying for Those with Addictions by Anne Costa (The Word Among Us Press, 2016). 

Venerable Matt Talbot, Patron Saint of Alcoholics:
Combating Alcoholism through the Example and Intercession of Matt Talbot
By: Anne Costa
September 7, 2017
Venerable Matt Talbot, Patron Saint of Alcoholics: Combating Alcoholism through the Example and Intercession of Matt Talbot by Anne Costa

In all difficult times and circumstances, throughout the history of humanity and the Church, God has raised up saints in our midst to help us. They are our sisters and brothers in the body of Christ.
They lived lives and encountered hardships that are very similar to our own. When we call upon the saints, we give our prayers an extra boost of intercessory power, and our own faith is bolstered in the process.

These ordinary people were given extraordinary graces and virtues to combat the darkness and trials that surrounded them. Five such individuals come to the forefront as guides on our mission of love, mercy, and hope for those we know who are addicted. They are St. Faustina, Venerable Matt Talbot, St. Monica and St. Augustine, and St. Maximilian Kolbe.

Venerable Matt Talbot

Venerable Matt Talbot (1856–1925) is the patron saint of alcoholics. He was one of twelve children born into extreme poverty in the tenements of Dublin, Ireland. His father was a heavy drinker who could not provide for his family, and so he moved them from place to place. As a result, Matt attended formal school only from the ages of eleven to twelve and could not read or write.

When Matt was twelve, he got his first job as a delivery boy for a beer bottling company and also took his first drink. This unhealthy combination seemed to seal his fate. By the time he was sixteen, Matt was a confirmed alcoholic. He was spending all of his money on alcohol and not supporting his family, who remained desperately poor. Matt recalled that he reached his lowest point “when he and his brothers stole a fiddle from a blind street player and sold it for the price of a drink.”

While these hardly seem like the actions of a man on his way to sainthood, God had another plan! One fateful Saturday afternoon, after twelve years of hard drinking, Matt found himself without a job, without a drink, and without a friend to help him get one. As he walked home that day, he experienced a moment of immense grace. He suddenly saw with an intense clarity in his mind and heart that he had been wasting his life. At the age of twenty-eight, he saw himself for what he truly was—a fool who had nothing to show for his life.

By the time he reached his home, Matt had made the decision to quit drinking. That very day he walked to Dublin Seminary and made his confession to a priest, who helped him “take the pledge” to renounce alcohol for three months. He returned at six months and then made the pledge for life—but it was not easy! There were no twelve-step programs or counselors or support groups to help him. Nevertheless, Matt maintained sobriety through a recovery program that centered on daily Mass, devotion to the Eucharist, a love for Mary, and spiritual reading. (He learned to read so that he could read the Bible.)

Matt Talbot is often referred to as an “urban ascetic.” After his conversion, he lived a life of quiet devotion, holiness, and extreme generosity in spirit and material goods in the midst of the flourishing city life that swirled around him. He offered a pious contrast and example of austerity and charity for those he worked with and those in his neighborhood.

Although there is no cause for sainthood presently open for Matt Talbot’s mother, Elizabeth, perhaps there should be! In addition to her husband, all but one of her seven sons were alcoholics. She had no money and barely a roof over her head but managed to remain steadfast in her prayers for her family. She took in work and held out hope that her family could be cured of its problems. Thanks to Matt, she was able to live the last twelve years of her life in relative peace and stability when he moved in to care for her after his father who passed away.

“Never be too hard on the man who can’t give up drink,” Matt Talbot is often quoted as saying. “It’s as hard to give up the drink as it is to raise the dead to life again. But both are possible and even easy for our Lord. We have only to depend on him.”. . . 

“Lord, you give us the example of Venerable Matt Talbot as a man who seemed completely lost and beyond your grace. In a single moment, you pierced his heart and changed his mind, leading him back to you. Jesus, I pray for this same conversion and transformation for _________ in your perfect will and timing and for your greater glory. Amen.”

Note: Matt Talbot (1856-1925) was declared “Venerable” by Pope Paul VI in 1975.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

"Matt Talbot: An Introduction"

Matt Talbot


A sixty four page book has been published by Veritas Publications, Ireland, at

The publisher’s book description:  

"This short book explains how a seemingly unremarkable Dubliner became an inspiration for those suffering from addiction around the world. Born into poverty in the mid-nineteenth century, Matt Talbot’s early adulthood was blighted by crippling alcoholism but, in a remarkable turn of events, he would go on to overcome his addiction, join the Pioneer Association and inspire Christians around the globe with his forbearance, spiritual zeal and charitable acts. Declared venerable by Pope Paul VI in 1975, Matt Talbot’s example of great faith triumphing over adversity continues to inspire those struggling with alcohol and drug dependence to this day."


While this book does not list the author’s name, a recent book review at states the original source of authorship: Mary Purcell (1906-1991).


“Though this little book is unsigned on the title page, it is actually extracted from Mary Purcell’s Remembering Matt Talbot published in 1954. Mary Purcell was once a well known writer and her authorship should be recognised on the title page. 


When local veneration of Matt Talbot began to emerge in 1930s Dublin the focus was on Matt Talbot’s stoic abasement of his flesh – this is the figure of Tom Kilroy’s play Talbot’s Box. Today, however, as his shrine in Sean McDermott Street shows, his name is associated with prayers for those who struggle with addiction to drugs or drink.


He was a quintessential working class Dubliner, and his life and circumstances will always be of interest. His escape from poverty was through the wonders of religious faith and a vision of something better, though the sinner in Matt Talbot was easier for the Church he lived with to encompass than the saint was.   


Irish society has so greatly changed that many of the younger generations have only the vaguest idea of what life and religion were like in the early part of the 20th Century. This little book will be a step towards deepening their knowledge."



Besides used copies of Mary Purcell’s books on Matt Talbot are available for sale online, two of her books can be read online at  and