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The Christophers: Father Ed Dowling’s Ministry to Alcoholics


By Toni Rossi,

Director of Communications


Many people know the story of Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson. Much less is known about Father Ed Dowling, the Catholic priest who served as his spiritual sponsor. In the early-to-mid 20th century, Father Ed embodied the love of Christ not only to alcoholics, but to anyone who was suffering or marginalized: from African Americans to those with mental health issues to married couples in need of counseling. Author Dawn Eden Goldstein has done a deep-dive into Father Ed’s life to explore the personal suffering which grew his compassion—and the deep faith that motivated his work. Her book is called “Father Ed: The Story of Bill W’s Spiritual Sponsor,” and we discussed it recently on “Christopher Closeup.”

When Father Ed was 19 years old, before he entered the Jesuit seminary, his younger brother James died because of the 1918 flu pandemic. To make things worse, Father Ed suspected he might have given the disease to his brother, with whom he shared an especially close bond. Dawn said, ”When you have a wound like that—whether it’s grief or another kind of trauma, particularly trauma that hits you when you’re young—it can make you question, ‘Does God exist? Does God care about me?’”

As Father Ed’s faith grew deeper over the years through the practice of saying daily Mass and meditating in front of a crucifix, he believed that Jesus brought him a level of healing from his emotional wound. He also came to see the “suffering Christ in his suffering brothers and sisters” and made it a part of his mission to reach out to them. When Father Ed first encountered the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, he felt God’s hand at work. The 12 Steps were based on Bill Wilson’s achievement of sobriety after a spiritual experience. He devised the Steps so that alcoholics could recognize ”that they’re powerless over alcohol and that only a higher power can relieve them of this great thirst for alcohol.”

“Then,” continued Dawn, “what Bill discovered—and what he passed on through the Steps—was that he could only maintain his sobriety through…helping other alcoholics. I think Father Dowling must have recognized that this is also a very Christian idea: that our salvation is not meant only for ourselves…Every Christian has a mission. This is part of the message of the Second Vatican Council. We have a mission to be Christ among others and to spread that fragrance of Christ wherever we go.”

As he got older, Father Ed experienced an ever-worsening arthritis that was turning his body to stone, as others described it. Getting around became quite painful, yet he always exuded joy amidst his suffering. Dawn interviewed several people who spent time with him and their recollections confirmed this point. She said, “What I picked up from them was that Father Ed…so loved people that he could not be unhappy when other people were around because he was interested in them. Even when they were going through difficult times and he was suffering with them, he felt honored that they were sharing their lives with him…Every person he encountered, whether it was the drunk just off the street or the high society person, they each felt that they were the most important person who Father Dowling saw that day.”

In closing, Dawn hopes that Father Ed comes alive for readers of her book, explaining, “If I could ensure that they encountered Father Ed, then…they would encounter Christ through him and Christ’s healing.”

 

For free copies of the Christopher News Note BRINGING LIGHT TO LOST SOULS, write: The Christophers, 5 Hanover Square, New York, NY 10004; or e-mail: mail@christophers.org

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