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by Dan M.

This is the first of what we intend to be a regular column on A.A. history. We hope it will appeal to both those who have read deeply in A.A. history and those who are new to it.

“She also insisted that there be a coffee bar, not something typical in a hospital, but important to people in recovery.”

Bill W. often emphasized the many non-alcoholic friends of A.A. without whom the program may have foundered in its early years. No non-alcoholic was more important than Sister Mary Ignatia of St. Thomas Hospital of Akron, Ohio, and later St. Vincent Charity Hospital of Cleveland. Born in County Mayo, Ireland in 1889, she emigrated to the U.S., with her family, when she was six. As a young woman she showed great aptitude for piano and voice, and was soon teaching music even before she entered the convent with the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine in Ohio. By 1933, the demands of teaching had become too much for her health and she became registrar of St. Thomas Hospital.

It was here in 1940 that Dr. Bob approached the hospital, searching for a way to better help alcoholics. He explained to the Sister the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, including how it had it worked for him. Much moved, Sister Ignatia agreed to help. He already had a patient who needed a bed. She decided that the man had terrible indigestion and should be admitted right away. When she saw how drunk he was, she had a bed moved into the hospital’s flower room where he wouldn’t disturb other patients. Obviously, every drunk couldn’t be admitted under the guise of indigestion, so the Sister and Dr. Bob went to the hospital’s superior and convinced her as well. Soon there was a whole ward for alcoholics with Sister Ignatia in charge. She listened and talked with gentle compassion to the alcoholics as well as their families. Ten years after they had begun, when Dr. Bob spoke at the International Convention in Cleveland, he estimated that they had administered to five thousand alcoholics.

In 1952 her order moved Sister Ignatia to St. Vincent Charity Hospital in Cleveland where she oversaw another ward for alcoholics. Here she raised funds and utilized the help of A.A. carpenters, plumbers, and electricians to revitalize the dilapidated wing. She also insisted that there be a coffee bar, not something typical in a hospital, but important to people in recovery. Over the next fourteen years, the hospital helped over ten thousand alcoholics.

Sister Ignatia passed away in 1966, at age 77. Some three thousand people attended her funeral, including Bill W., who always made sure she knew the great gratitude Alcoholics Anonymous had for her, one of our most cherished non-alcoholic friends.

There is a wealth of information on Sister Ignatia throughout A.A. history books. This article leans heavily on Bill W.’s remembrance to Grapevine from 1966. It can be found in The Language of the Heart, p. 371.