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Sr. Ignatia Gavin, CSA – The “Angel of Alcoholics Anonymous”

Ignatia at Rosary Hall

Sometimes referred to as the “Angel of Alcoholics Anonymous,” Sr. Ignatia Gavin, CSA, was instrumental in helping thousands of individuals reach sobriety through her work with Alcoholics Anonymous.

Born in Ireland in 1889 as Della Bridgid Gavin, she and her family eventually settled in Cleveland, OH. She entered the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine on March 25, 1914, later receiving the name Sr. Ignatia, in honor of St. Ignatius Loyola.

Sister was sent to the newly-opened St. Thomas Hospital in Akron, OH, where she worked in the admitting office. It was there that she met Dr. Bob Smith and Bill Wilson, co-founders of AA. At the time, alcoholism was largely seen as a moral failing, rather than a disease worthy of formal treatment. But when Dr. Bob approached Sr. Ignatia and asked her to admit an alcoholic patient, she agreed. Sr. Ignatia gave the man a diagnosis of “acute gastritis,” and, as there were no free rooms, set him up with a bed in the hospital’s flower room. As Sr. Ignatia said much later, it seemed to her at the time as a routine action in her position as hospital registrar. But the action wasn’t quite that routine! St. Thomas Hospital is the considered to be the first religious institution in the US to admit an alcoholic patient.

Sr. Ignatia is credited with helping 15,000 recover under her direct influence and assisting 60,000 family members through the Al-Anon sessions she initiated. However, she has always thanked the hundreds of AA members for any success attributed to her.

In 1952, Sr. Ignatia was sent to St. Vincent Charity Hospital, where she opened a small unit called Rosary Hall Solarium. Rosary Hall still offers outpatient addiction treatment to patients today. Kind, but firm, Sr. Ignatia accepted no nonsense from those struggling in the recovery. To each person who completed the program, Sr. Ignatia gave a Sacred Heart of Jesus badge. Each person had to promise to return the badge to her before taking another drink.

Even as her health began to fail, she insisted on being wheeled into the various counseling sessions if only to be present. She finally had to retire to Mt. Augustine, the community’s motherhouse infirmary, in 1965, and died on April 1, 1966.

“Had someone told me at the crossroads of life that I’d spend my days caring for alcoholics, I’d have wilted,” Sr. Ignatia said. “But God, in His Divine providence, works in mysterious ways. He can use very weak and apparently inefficient instruments to accomplish His purpose.”

Sr. Ignatia’s message of hope and her deep humility endures in the spirit of AA today. AA members across the world acknowledge her unique place among the pioneers of the movement and her role in developing a hospital-based recovery program.


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