May 05

The First Chip Monk Started With a Habit: Sister Ignatia

sister-ignatia 2The beginning of the beginners chip or the desire chip. An outward sign of an inner commitment to try our way of life (to stay sober) for 24 hours, are there any takers? If it doesn’t work for you we will gladly refund your misery.

“In 1950, the year of his death, (Dr. Bob Smith) carried the A.A. message to more than 5,000 alcoholic men and women, and to all these he gave his medical services without thought of charge.
“In this prodigy of service, he was well assisted by Sister Ignatia at St. Thomas Hospital in Akron, Ohio, one of the greatest friends our Fellowship will ever know.”– Dr. Bobs Nightmare AA BB p. 171

Sister Ignatia was born in Ireland as Bridget Della Mary Gavin on 2 January 1889 at Shan valley, Burren, in CountyMayo.
Having moved to the United States, in 1914 she entered the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine in Ohio, at which time she took the name Sister Mary Ignatia. A superb musician, she was assigned to teach music. She did this for about ten years, but found it “too hectic” and suffered a nervous breakdown.
When she recovered, she began working as a nurse. On August 16, 1935, Sister Ignatia was in charge of admissions at St. Thomas Hospital in Akron, Ohio. She and Dr. Bob Smith admitted the first alcoholic patient who would be the first of millions to participate in the Twelve-step program of recovery, the beginning of Alcoholics Anonymous.


The founding of Alcoholics Anonymous is a topic of great discussion within AA literature. It is a discussion that is carried over into the meetings themselves, and many members pride themselves on rekindling the spirit of our ‘pioneering times’, claiming that the program and fellowship itself have been watered down, diluted and misdirected. The issues of sponsorship and carrying the message are the spearheads of this controversy, despite the 10th Tradition’s complicit suggestion that it be avoided. Although, this suggested point of tradition explicitly warns against involvement in ‘outside issues’ and ‘public controversy’. This may obviously mean that inner controversy and inside issues are tolerated, loved and accepted.
Something that is undermined and often overlooked in AA meetings when discussion of its history arises is the fact that many non-alcoholics were involved in the conception and evolution of the organization itself. In fact, were it not for these professional normal and temperate drinkers, AA may not have survived its early days of growth and sustainability. One such person is Sister Ignatia, a particularly spiritual figure in AA past that seems to have eluded the more predominant and popular AA literature. There is scarce mention of her in the Big Book itself. In fact, one will only find casual reference to her in the opening monologue to Dr. Bob’s story (of which the excerpt is provided above). Her name does not appear in the first 164 pages.
A long list of normies adorns the history of Alcoholics Anonymous. In addition to Sister Ignatia’s contribution are Sam Shoemaker, Dr. Carl Jung, Father Dowling and Lois Wilson herself. Without these people AA may not have ever become, and it is clear that their involvement with the fellowship has vastly improved and helped evolve the AA way of life. Leave anything up to a group of sorry drunks and they will muck it up every time.

“Could these large numbers of erstwhile erratic alcoholics successfully meet and work together? Would there be quarrels over membership, leadership, and money? Would there be strivings for power and prestige? Would there be schisms which would split A.A. apart?” – Forward to Second Edition AA BB p. xviii-xix

Yes, in the beginning it was the non-alcoholics that pointed out the frailty, strength, opportunity and danger inherent in the largely growing and developing sobriety movement that is now called Alcoholics Anonymous. It wasn’t until AA became the guiding force in sobering up drunks that alcoholism became seriously considered and treated as a legitimate disease. Before the 12 steps, problem drinkers were looked upon as derelicts and miscreants whose real issue was moral deficiency. When Sister Ignatia fell victim to the belief that she and a few other interested medical professionals could treat drunks as patients, the tide on alcoholic recovery really began to take its turn.
The stigma associated with alkies was that they were doomed, hopeless and helpless. At first, Sister Ignatia began treating drunks in secret, with the help of Dr. Bob Smith and another ER intern. As their treatment proved successful, soon alcoholics began being brought through the front door of the hospital and a ward was secured for this work. No longer were drunks locked up and administered Belladonna treatment for their ailments. The real problems with these people were addressed, and in 1935 the first official admission of an alcoholic patient was made.

The telephone rang and Sister Ignatia answered it.
“This is Bill, Sister. I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to send you back the Sacred Heart Badge. I’ve had a rough morning and I’m going out to get a drink.”
Sister Ignatia sighed, but said quickly: “Don’t do it, Bill. Wait until you finish work at five. Then call me again. In the meantime, I’ll pray for you. Whatever you do, don’t send me back that badge. Keep it with you for strength and inspiration.”
Sister Ignatia prayed hard all afternoon and, finally the call came from Bill.
“It’s O.K., Sister, I never took the drink. I think I’m going to be all right now, thanks to the Sacred Heart and you.”
image003image002 2After sobering up for a few days, Sister Ignatia would present these patients with a token, representing personal commitment to God, Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12 step program. The only requirement for accepting this ‘Sacred Heart Medallion’ is that if the patient ever returned to the drink again, the coin would be given back. This is a tradition we carry on today in the rooms of AA when we hand out chips decorating members who have achieved increments of continuous sobriety.
Sister Ignatia claimed that the real back bone of this effort was Ann Smith Dr. Bob’s Dutiful wife. When Sister Ignatia was not sure of what the next right thing to do and did not want to bother the Dr. (Dr. Bob) with every dart and fiddle for there were 5000 that found beds and a new way of living.
She would rely on Ann, as she always knew exactly what to do. Sister Ignatia also claimed that women had a harder time getting sober because they would have the innate ability to stay in denial that much longer, Ann would always have insights otherwise denied to others.
In a collaboration with Dr.Bob they convinced the powers that be, the hospital board to put on an alcoholic wing. It was paid for and built by the alcoholics. The wing was named Rosary Hall because every time you saw a rosary you would think of prayer and it was through the prayers of the penitent that this work and this wing was there.
The Sister wanted to name after Dr. Bob and in a way she did, it was finally called Rosary Hall Solarium in honor of Dr. Bob’s Initials, Robert Holbrook Smith the initials on the doors read RHS.

Written in collaboration with Joseph G. from