A History of Sponsorship

Sister Ignatia
Sister Ignatia

To begin writing about sponsorship without first telling you a bit about Sister Ignatia would be the proverbial "putting the cart before the horse." Please indulge me a bit as I summarize my understanding of who Sister Ignatia was and why in some circles she is considered to be the third founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Sister Ignatia was a Catholic nun belonging to the Order of the Sisters of Charity. She was small in stature but had a very big in heart for the underdog. She struggled with bouts of depression and her path was not always clear to her. She dedicated her life to the service of her fellows and made her relationship with Christ her vocation. She understood, well before any of the cognitive or behavioral therapists, that a way to overcome depression was through activity that shifted her focus outside of herself and intense love for God. To Sister Ignatia the most disturbing component of her depression was the obsession with self that accompanied it. In these ways, she was very similar to the other founder of A.A., Bill Wilson.

"Our Little Sister," as Bill would lovingly refer to her, began as a music teacher and parish musician but was unable to deal with the stress of pleasing her Mother Superior and the priests of the Diocese. As a result she was reassigned to "light duty" as the admissions clerk at St. Thomas Hospital in Akron, Ohio, for recuperative time. The hospital administrator was a bit easier to please but Sister Ignatia quickly fell into conflict with her as well.

This time it wasn´t her inability to perform; it was her love and devotion to her fellow underdog, the alcoholic. She knew these men were physically ill as well as spiritually separated from God. She would admit alcoholics to the regular medical ward to keep an eye on them as they shook off a bad drunk.

"The alcoholic is deserving of sympathy. Christ-like charity and intelligent care are needed so that with God´s grace he or she may be given the opportunity to accept a new philosophy of life."
Sister Ignatia

Problems arose, however, about the end of the second or third day when the sick man would often rise from his bed with visual hallucinations, running through the halls and causing great bedlam.

Additionally, though the alcoholics would sign promissory notes for their hospital bills with the best intentions to make good on their debt, many would begin drinking again and leave the bills unpaid. As a result, the hospital forbade Sister Ignatia from admitting any more drunk men. Fortunately for all of us, she didn’t obey.

In the early 1930s, prior to A.A.´s founding, Sister Ignatia began admitting drunks on the sly and putting them in the gardener’s flower room at the end of the medical wing. She befriended an emergency room doctor who would sign the admission orders and prescribe the treatment.

Often working around the clock, the diminuitive nun would keep the men in the hospital for as many as five days, sometimes physically restraining them through the delirium tremens on days 2 and 3. On days 4 and 5 she would meet with the men and their families to encourage their increased devotion to God; Sacred Heart Medallion
Sacred Heart
requiring prayer in the chapel, admission of all sin and a plan for mending broken fences focusing on forgiving those on the other side of the fence. She knew that without forgiveness the men would get angry again and use that as an excuse to drink again.

AA Medallion
A.A. Chip

When the men would leave the hospital, Sister Ignatia would give them a Sacred Heart medallion and extract a promise they would come back to her to return the medallion face to face before drinking again. This is the origin of our tradition of handing out chips or medallions for various lengths of sobriety.

In 1935 Sister Ignatia got an unlikely confidant, Dr. Robert Holbrook Smith, one of the worst "professional" drunks in town. He got medical privileges at St. Thomas and shared with her the new lease on life he had been given by God through a stranger from New York City. She became very interested in this apparent cure for alcoholism, and was particularly pleased to learn the cure´s foundation was spiritual. Sister Ignatia had always known alcoholics needed a more complete and personal relationship with God. She also knew all her efforts alone in the hospital were not enough to bring about true recovery from alcoholism. A piece of the process was missing, and this spiritual awakening could be it.

She began working with Dr. Bob, his wife Annie, and Bill W. to treat alcoholics. Sister Ignatia would admit drunks to the hospital, Dr. Bob would oversee their medical detoxification, Annie would meet with their wives who were often brought to their Ardmore Street home. Every day early recruits would join Bill W. and Dr. Bob at the hospital to meet the new admissions and walk them through the process of recovering from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body.

St. Thomas Hospital
St. Thomas Hospital

The hospital administrator reluctantly agreed to allow admission of drunks to the hospital again as long as a member of the new recovered alcoholic group "sponsored" each admission, thereby taking responsibility for the hospital bill as well as meeting with the men and their families daily while in the hospital. This is the birth of sponsorship.

In those early days, sponsorship put the responsibility for doing the work on the sponsor rather than on the sponsored. Those early A.A. members understood that without diligently working with others, there could be no ongoing long term recovery. With dedicated and often desperate work, it took 3½ years to see the first 100 alcoholics achieve ongoing recovery. Without hospitalization that involved the interaction and leadership of recovered alcoholics, it likely would have taken longer to launch AA to the world. Remember, to change one thing changes everything.

•  •  •

In my own life, sponsorship has played a central role. I have experienced group sponsorship, individual sponsorship and no sponsorship. In the near future I´ll write about the lessons I learned from these experiences.

About this last story: like many past events, the facts sometimes get blurred from the retelling of the tale. Such is the case with the history of how the term Pigeon came to be used when referring to refer to sponsees. I have no idea where I heard this, so I could just be spreading a rumor. For all I know I could have made it up in my own early sobriety and told the story so often that I now believe it. With that caveat, here it goes —

Bill Wilson used to raise carrier pigeons on his roof top in New York City. Bill was fascinated with the idea of training these birds — which were used as early as 1150 in Baghdad and later by Genghis Khan — to carry messages. It wasn´t surprising, therefore, that when he thought of his work with alcoholics he drew the obvious parallel. Since he was training these men to carry the message of Alcoholics Anonymous to others, it became natural to begin calling them his "Pigeons."

Whether the story is true or not, it was part of my initial recovery, and I thought it bears repeating.

Questions for pondering:

"When was the last time I went to a detox unit to work with others?"
"Do I work diligently and desperately with all newcomers, remembering that that work is my true protection against relapse?"

Much of this summary comes from the book Sister Ignatia, The Angel of Alcoholics Anonymous. Also, I have spent much time in Akron and at St. Thomas Hospital. The Catholic chapel in the hospital is now named Ignatia Chapel and its contents tells stories of A.A.´s early days. There are also great archives that include many with Sister Ignatia, at the Akron Area Intergroup on Main St. in Akron.