Father Ed and the First Catholic Outreach to Alcoholics Anonymous

father ed and the first catholic outreach to alcoholics anonymous

Jesuit Father Edward Dowling (1898-1960), although not an alcoholic himself, is beloved among members of Twelve-Step programs for his ministry to members of Alcoholics Anonymous and others seeking to overcome unwanted habits. He rescued A.A. co-founder Bill Wilson from debilitating depression and gave him the spiritual guidance he needed to bring the fellowship to international prominence. Dowling also championed civil rights and social justice, and was a leading advocate for the electoral system known as proportional representation.

At the Chicago meeting where Father Edward Dowling, SJ—accompanying an alcoholic friend—had his first encounter with A.A. in February 1940, he bought a copy of the fellowship’s recently published official text: Alcoholics Anonymous, popularly known as the Big Book. Once Father Ed caught the train out of town, that book, along with his breviary, was his companion for the next leg of his travels—a journey to New York City, where he was to give lectures on democracy. By the time he returned home, at the end of February, he had finished the book and was in awe of its spiritual depth.

Having come of age during the era of Prohibition, Father Ed would have been familiar with Protestant temperance literature, which typically bore down upon alcoholics with warnings about the sinfulness of their behavior. He also would have known of Catholic temperance movements such as the Dublin-based Pioneer Total Abstinence Association of the Sacred Heart, which, although refraining from applying the language of sin to alcohol, praised abstinence as a “heroic offering to God.” But nothing he had read or heard from temperance advocates prepared him for the Big Book’s intense call to self-examination, conversion, and trustful surrender to God’s transformative grace.

Although Father Ed did not immediately connect the Big Book with the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, he instinctively recognized in it some of the same spiritual principles that had drawn him to the Exercises. It was his fellow Jesuit Father John Markoe—a priest of outstanding ability (and a trailblazer in interracial justice) who struggled with alcoholism—who, when Father Ed showed him the book in April or May of 1940, pointed out to him connections between the Twelve Steps and the Exercises. Markoe’s insights increased Father Ed’s interest in A.A. even more, and he resolved to find the author or authors of the Steps.

A sad occasion was in store for Father Ed upon his return to St. Louis—the funeral of his Uncle Paul, who had died at age sixty-one after suffering for seven years from Parkinson’s disease. Although Father Ed’s own crippling illness was not Parkinson’s but ankylosing spondylitis, he recognized in his uncle’s sufferings something of his own future. The once-athletic Jesuit was only forty-one but already looked like an old man. His disease had caused his spine and left leg to become calcified; he required a cane to walk. Time was running out. If he wanted to fulfill the path that he believed the Lord was showing him—a path that now included spreading the word about A.A.—he had to stay on the move, cane and all.

But first he had to find some alcoholics. At that time, Alcoholics Anonymous was barely out of its infancy. Just five years earlier, in December 1934, Bill Wilson was lying in a treatment bed at Towns Hospital in New York City when he had the transformative spiritual experience that confirmed his faith in God—and gave him the strength to quit alcohol forever. Eager to share the healing he had received, Bill tried to help other alcoholics, but was unsuccessful until his fateful encounter with Dr. Bob Smith, who would found A.A. with Bill in Akron, Ohio, in June 1935.

By the time Father Ed discovered the fellowship, Alcoholics Anonymous had about one thousand members nationwide. Its only chapters in the Midwest were the original Akron group and those that had recently formed in Cleveland and Chicago. If Father Ed were to minister to A.A. members in St. Louis, he would have to start a chapter himself—or, rather, convince some drinkers to do so.

And so, Dowling, ever the connector, reached out to the Chicago A.A. leaders he had met to let them know to encourage any alcoholics from St. Louis who approached their group to contact him. And they did. On May 11, 1940, Father Ed took his contact with A.A. to the next level, with a letter to its New York office, the Alcoholic Foundation (today known as the General Service Office):


I had the rare privilege of attending the business meeting of the AA and later a social open house in Chicago, at the invitation of one of the members who consulted me on his last escapade. I am deeply impressed by what I saw and heard.

Dowling wrote that, in addition to the Big Book, he had obtained a copy of A.A.’s recent pamphlet—its first, containing reprints of articles about the fellowship from the Houston Press. “I enclose $1.00 and ask that you send me all of the A.A. pamphlets, April 1940, that this will cover.” And he added, “I know, personally, nine or ten prospects here in St. Louis.”

In closing, he encouraged the Alcoholic Foundation to “continue on the splendid work” and said he was thinking of writing about A.A. in The Queen’s Work, the magazine of the Sodality of Our Lady, where he was an associate editor.

At some point not long before or after Father Ed reached out to the Alcoholic Foundation, he made a visit to the Akron group, where he met Dr. Bob Smith and Henrietta Seiberling. He also visited Dr. Bob at his home. The doctor told him how he “had not had a completely sober day in twenty years” until Bill W. worked with him.

It was likely during Father Ed’s visit to the Akron group that he said something to an A.A. member that affected Seiberling so powerfully that she could still recall the Jesuit’s words clearly thirty years later: “This is one of the most beautiful things that has come into the world. But I want to warn you that the devil will try to destroy it.”

According to Mary Darrah, the biographer of Sister Ignatia (whose work among alcoholics earned her the title of “Angel of Alcoholics Anonymous”), Father Ed sought to learn from the Akron group whether the author of the Twelve Steps had consciously adapted them from the Spiritual Exercises. “However, in Akron his spiritual inquiries yielded no results. Most of the early A.A.s there were Protestant and had never heard of St. Ignatius or his Spiritual Exercises.” It was they who directed him to seek his answers from Bill W., the primary author of the Big Book.

Darrah’s account seems fundamentally accurate, particularly in light of comments Father Ed made in a May 1942 letter to Bill Wilson about his and Dr. Bob’s impressions of each other when they first met in Akron. Father Ed diplomatically described how Dr. Bob expressed discomfort with a certain brand of Catholic spirituality (and received a delightfully Dowlingesque reply):

Doc Smith is so real and I would feel bad if I didn’t have a well-grounded hope of coming to know him better. In our Akron talk, Smith seemed to have a sincere respect for the Jesuit Order because of its social activities, but he was a bit scandalized at the thought of the Trappist Order which spends most of its time in silence and prayer. I suggested that trafficking with God in prayer is a pretty high society and a very influential social activity—that these people are our lobbyists before the divine legislature.

When Bill Wilson received Father Ed’s letter, he mailed him ten copies of the pamphlet he requested. Four weeks later, on June 11, he directed his secretary, Ruth Hock, to follow up with a letter. Thanking the priest for his interest, Hock typed (perhaps following Bill’s dictation),

For quite a few months we have been receiving inquiries for information and assistance from St. Louis and vicinity and we would, therefore, appreciate an opportunity to correspond with you and those working with you in the A.A. Fellowship so that we may extend the possibility of personal assistance to those in the vicinity of St. Louis who desire it.

The letter’s businesslike cordiality likely reflected Bill’s discomfort at interacting with a member of the Catholic clergy. Although Bill saw Catholics at A.A. meetings, he had never been good friends with any Catholic, let alone a priest, until he met Father Ed.

Hock’s reply reached Father Ed at a busy time; the Summer School of Catholic Action, of which he was a lecturer and administrator, was about to launch its 1940 season. A few days later, on June 18, he found a moment to reply.

“I am spreading the good word of the fine work being done by the A.A.,” Father Ed wrote. “I have had two or three callers.”

He added,

In general, I run into the difficulty of the unwillingness of the people concerned to admit they are alcoholic. I know this is not a new difficulty and can gradually be overcome.

Mr. [K.] of this city who has visited the Chicago A.A. group is going to have a gathering next Sunday. He is the only one who has visited an established A.A. group. I would have preferred to have at least several local alcoholics visit with Akron or Chicago groups before doing much in an organized way.

However, I am deeply happy to cooperate in any way I can. If any literature other than the Houston Press pamphlet and large book is available, I should appreciate getting it.

Upon receiving this second letter from Father Ed, Bill Wilson recognized that the priest’s interest in A.A. was more than casual. Here was a non-alcoholic with some influence in his community who was sincere about wanting to spread the fellowship’s message. Bill therefore spent more time composing his response than he did in replying to Father Ed’s first inquiry. (This second letter, unlike the first, was clearly written by him personally, despite bearing Hock’s signature.) He also took a warmer tone, although his lack of familiarity with Catholic clergy remained evident, for he began the July 9, 1940, letter with “Dear Sir”:

Thank you very much for your recent letter in response to ours.

We can well appreciate the difficulty which you find in that many drinkers think this is a fine movement but not for them. We feel that one of the reasons for the success of this work is the fact that one alcoholic spreads the word to another, for almost invariably an alcoholic will admit his condition more readily to another alcoholic. Of course, even so, many alcoholics will not admit the fact. We do not try to convince them, knowing that if they are truly alcoholic, the time will come when they will be forced to admit it.

Bill then switched topics to request details of the incipient St. Louis fellowship: “In an indirect way, it has come to us that there are five alcoholics working together in St. Louis at the present time. Can you tell us if this is a fact and, if so, what progress has been made?”

He then added a question that hinted at his real concern: “Also whether any religion is represented in addition to the Catholic?”

The question reflected the tensions that were then going on within A.A. as it began to come into its own, having only recently severed its ties with the Oxford Group, the Protestant movement that had provided it with its initial spiritual moorings. In the face of members’ disagreements over the place of religion in A.A., Bill was insisting that the fellowship had to be open to people of all faiths and even of no particular faith—hence the Twelve Steps’ references to “God as we understood him.” So he was concerned at the prospect that the St. Louis chapter might be a Catholic-only fellowship. If that were the case, it could threaten the universality that the Alcoholics Anonymous name was intended to represent.

Bill’s letter went on to assure Father Ed, in answer to a concern the priest had expressed, that new chapters had managed to thrive even when their members had not witnessed existing chapters in action. In response to Dowling’s request for additional literature, Bill enclosed a new pamphlet, this one reprinting articles on A.A. from the Washington Star. And in valediction, he wrote, “Awaiting your reply with interest.” But he still had his secretary sign the letter, perhaps as a means of preserving anonymity during those early days before his identity became well known.

Father Ed responded on July 17 with answers to Bill’s questions about the St. Louis group. To the one concerning religion, he responded, “The only one of the group who is a Catholic is a Mrs. [C.]. I do not know Mr. [K.]’s religion, though it is not Catholic. Two men, Mr. [F.] and Mr. [J.] are Episcopalians, I think.” Although Dowling did not intend to mock Bill, his offhandedness is a humorous counter to the seriousness of Wilson’s query. Throughout Father Ed’s priestly life, he never judged people who came to him for help according to whether they were Catholic or not. He was interested in them simply because they were people, and people interested him. Years before Pope Francis used a maxim of the Roman playwright Terence in his preaching, Dowling lived the message of its words: “I am a man: I regard nothing human as foreign to me.”

The Alcoholic Foundation did not respond to Father Ed’s letter, which was just as well. He had work to do, teaching at the Summer School of Catholic Action and, when that was done, helping the St. Louis chapter of A.A. find its footing. It was during this summer’s SSCA that newspapers reported what would become his most famous quotation: “The two biggest obstacles to democracy in the United States are the widespread delusion that we have democracy and the chronic terror among the rich lest we get it.”

By October, plans were well underway for the St. Louis A.A. group’s official launch, with four key members of the Chicago group coming down to assist. Father Ed helped the lead organizer, Fitz F., prepare for the meeting spiritually, directing a retreat at the Jesuits’ White House retreat center on October 17 for him and the four visiting members of the Chicago group.

The first regular meeting of the St. Louis A.A. followed on October 30, 1940, at the home of one of the members. Father Ed would have found special meaning in that date, as it was the feast of St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, the patron saint of Jesuit lay brothers, who was known for his humility—the very virtue that he saw as foundational to A.A. In his first Queen’s Work article on A.A., he would write,

The essential dynamic of the program is based on the scriptural teaching that while “God resists the proud, He assists the humble.” Secondly, that the shortest road to humility is through humiliation, and the Alcoholics Anonymous yield to few other groups in their capital stock of humiliations.

As Father Ed joyfully witnessed the St. Louis chapter settle into a regular rhythm of meetings, A.A. members’ humble openness to grace continued to impress him. And he still wanted to learn whether Ignatian principles lay behind the creative work of Bill Wilson when he composed the Twelve Steps. Soon, thanks to a providential opening in his travel schedule, he would finally have the opportunity to find out.

Editorial Note: Adapted from Father Ed: The Story of Bill W.’s Spiritual Sponsor (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2022). Used with permission.