Sister Ignatia Gavin, CSA (1889-1966)
When Sr. Ignatia Gavin, a Sister of Charity of St. Augustine, died on April 1, 1966, the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Cleveland, Ohio was filled beyond its capacity. More than 1,500 people signed the funeral register. The diminutive Irish sister, often called “The Angel of Alcoholics Anonymous,” especially was mourned by recovering alcoholics and their families.
She spent her life working with Bill W. Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith to develop medical, spiritual, and supportive systems, first at St. Thomas hospital in Akron, Ohio and later at Rosary Hall of St. Vincent Charity Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. Together they formed the now famous organization, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
In 1935, Bill Wilson was a New York stockbroker one drink away from relapsing into alcoholism, and Dr. Bob Smith was an alcoholic physician in Akron. The doctor’s friend, Henrietta Sieberling, brought the two men together to talk about their mutual efforts to recover, as well as the importance of combining a medical approach with a spiritual one and the need for group efforts with other alcoholics. Over the next several years, Dr. Bob struggled to find an institution to accept his “alkie” patients. As Bill later recounted, “Dr. Bob thought of Sr. Ignatia, that shy but beaming nun who handled the admissions at St. Thomas Hospital in Akron, where he occasionally operated.”
“One day,” Sister Ignatia later recalled, “Dr. Bob came into the admitting office and seemed rather down. Then he told me about his problem, and that he and his New York friend couldn’t seem to get anyone to take his patients because they were too “jittery” and disruptive.” In that era, alcoholism was considered a moral failing, not a disease. She listened to his plan to get alcoholics out of their environment and to indoctrinate them with a new philosophy of life. On August 16, 1939, she agreed to admit the first patient, subtly listing the diagnosis as “acute gastritis.”
St. Thomas Hospital thus began its reputation as the first religious institution in the US to treat alcoholism as a disease. Sister Ignatia not only struggled against established practice to admit them, she also circumvented restrictive hospital policies so that recovering alcoholics could counsel others. She created a small ward for them, a testament to her belief that alcoholics could recover. Some hospital staff disliked these disruptive patients, and Sister Ignatia had to search for financial support for her unconventional programs.
New Yorker Wilson returned many times to Akron, and the trio of Sr. Ignatia, Dr. Bob, and Bill worked together to shape a formal program for alcoholism. It included various methods to sober up the patients and then care for their medical needs and introduce them to the developing principles of AA. To each person who completed the program, Sr. Ignatia gave a Sacred Heart of Jesus badge, a religious symbol that had been used by some Irish temperance movements in the 1840s. Each person had to promise to return the badge to her if he took another drink of alcohol. In today’s AA, various non-religious tokens are given to the person completing the program.
She was born as Della Bridgid Gavin on January 1, 1889, and the ruins of her birthplace -- a two-room stone cottage at Shanvalley, Burren in County Mayo, Ireland -- still remain. Her parents were Barbara Neary and Patrick Gavin. Along with other relatives, the Gavins left Ireland in the spring of 1896 for America in hopes of improving Mrs. Gavin’s health. Della was seven, and her brother Pat was ten. The family eventually settled in Cleveland, Ohio, and adjusted to life and school in America. Gifted musically, Della gave piano lessons in her home.
After some thought and consultation, she entered the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine on March 25, 1914, when she was twenty-five. She was attracted to the community because of its work with orphans. Later in life, she said she was still working among orphans, for many of those who come are estranged from family and friends, alone, and rejected.”
She received the name of Sister Ignatia in honor of St. Ignatius Loyola, who founded the Jesuit order of priests. The nuns also educated her, sending her to Indiana’s Notre Dame University in 1925, where she received a bachelor’s degree in music. She taught music to students at St. Augustine Motherhouse, as well at the orphanages run by the Sisters, but she was frail as a young woman and collapsed in 1927 from the strains of multiple demands of her music and teaching duties. This breakdown caused her to be hospitalized, and when she recovered, she was assigned to the newly opened St. Thomas Hospital in Akron, Ohio.
Within her first decade there, Sr. Ignatia implemented the recovery program, based on the principals of AA. It was well developed by 1952, when -- over the vehement protests of her Akron friends and supporters -- Sister Ignatia was sent by her religious community to St. Vincent Charity Hospital in Cleveland to begin a formal program there. On December 13, 1952, she opened a small unit called Rosary Hall Solarium. She also importantly implemented Al-Anon, the now famous program for families of alcoholics.
Kind, but firm, Sister Ignatia accepted no nonsense from those struggling in recovery, knowing the patient had to desire to overcome alcoholism. AA alums pitched in with financial donations and physical labor when the needs of Rosary Hall exceeded what the administration was willing or able to provide. When her health began to fail, she still insisted on being wheeled into Rosary Hall.
Sister Ignatia Gavin finally had to retire to Mt. Augustine, the community’s motherhouse infirmary, in 1965. She died on April 1, 1966, at age 77. She was inducted into the Ohio Women Hall of Fame in 1991, and Modern Health Care named her to their Hall of Fame in 2008. The Sr. Ignatia Heritage Center was established at Akron’s St. Thomas Hospital in 2008, and the city of Cleveland named the street on which St. Vincent Charity Hospital stands as “Sr. Ignatia Way.”Written by: Sr. Mary Denis Maher, CSA, PhD
Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine