Roslindale talk to explore priest's influence on AA founder

BRAINTREE -- Bill Wilson, known to millions as the "Bill W." who co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous, was the poster child of sobriety.

But as he sat in AA's Manhattan clubhouse on a cold night in November 1940, he was feeling "dry drunk." At the time, AA existed in only a handful of cities, and Wilson felt like a failure. As he sank into despair, an unexpected visitor came to his door.

Father Edward Dowling, a Jesuit priest from St. Louis known to all as "Father Ed," had discovered AA after ministering to a man struggling with alcoholism. He was fascinated by similarities that he saw between the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, which call people to recognize their sins and freely accept God's help, and AA's 12 Steps.

Father Ed, who was 42 years old but had white hair and walked with a cane due to arthritis, asked Wilson about St. Ignatius. Wilson rudely told Father Ed that he had never heard of St. Ignatius, but Father Ed was not discouraged. Eventually, he became Wilson's spiritual sponsor, helping him stay "spiritually sober" as AA grew throughout the country.

The story of the two men's relationship is told in Dawn Eden Goldstein's book "Father Ed: The Story of Bill W's Spiritual Sponsor." Goldstein, the first woman in history to earn a canonical doctorate in sacred theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Illinois, will discuss her book at the Sacred Heart School Auditorium, 1035 Canterbury Street, Roslindale, on Saturday, Oct. 7.

"Father Ed really seemed like an angel sent by God to encourage (Wilson)," Goldstein said in an interview.

Father Brian Clary of Sacred Heart Parish had been a fan of Goldstein's work for years, and the two met due to their shared interest in rock music. Before converting to Catholicism in 2006, Goldstein had been a rock journalist. Goldstein offered to speak at Sacred Heart for free, and Father Clary eagerly accepted the offer.

Father Clary said that the story of Father Ed had always "intrigued" him.

"I always find priests' vocational stories and ministerial stories to be so fascinating," Father Clary said, "especially someone who's been revered as a Catholic friend of Alcoholics Anonymous."

Father Clary is also director of the Priest Recovery Program, which helps priests in the Archdiocese of Boston who are struggling with alcoholism and substance abuse. Father Clary himself has been sober since 1998, and first heard of Father Ed when he was receiving treatment.

"I think what we should take away from this story is the beauty of their relationship," he said. "Two people who were on two different sides of the religious, spiritual tracks . . . This moment of grace brought them together."

At first, there was mutual suspicion between Catholics and members of AA, as AA's philosophy was inspired by the teachings of the Protestant Oxford Group. Father Clary called Father Ed a "bridge builder" between the two camps.

In 1941, Father Ed introduced Wilson to The Queen's Work, the Jesuit publishing apostolate where he worked. Due to the similarities between the 12 Steps and Ignatian spirituality, the Catholic clergy Wilson spoke to assumed that he had been raised Catholic.

Father Ed helped Wilson apply the principles of both the 12 Steps and Ignatian spirituality in his own life, and spread the word of AA to both Catholic and Protestant clergy. This helped the organization grow throughout the country.

"With Father Ed's help, Bill was able to really find joy in the struggle," Goldstein said. "Father Ed helped Bill to better understand how these timeless teachings of growth in spiritual life were reflected in the steps."