Sister Ignatia was an answer to prayers at St. Thomas Hospital


So many prayers have been whispered in this quiet chapel.

Visitors prayed for the elderly and newborns. They prayed for the sick, the healers and the dying. They prayed for miracles.

There were prayers of devotion, prayers of gratitude, prayers of supplication, prayers of forgiveness, prayers of repentance.

The last amen will soon be pronounced here.

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A sanctuary for nearly a century, the chapel at St. Thomas Hospital in Akron will close permanently on September 5 as Summa Health prepares to vacate the building and move into the new Behavioral Health Pavilion next year. the Juve family at the City of Akron Hospital.

The chapel holds historical significance to members of Alcoholics Anonymous. This is where many prayers have been answered on the road to recovery.

St. Thomas Hospital opened in 1928

Akron’s first Catholic hospital opened with solemn pageantry on September 25, 1928. Bishop of Cleveland Joseph Schrembs dedicated the chapel and then celebrated mass at the center altar while Reverend JJ Scullen, pastor of St. Vincent’s Church, and the Rev. Joseph O’Keefe, pastor of St. Mary’s Church, simultaneously celebrated Mass at side altars.

“The dedication completed a lasting memorial to the memory of the late Mr. O’Neil, the hospital’s principal benefactor, and the Reverend Thomas Mahar, brother of Mrs. M. O’Neil, in whose honor the hospital has been named,” reported the Akron Times-Press.

The Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine, overseers of St. Vincent Charity Hospital in Cleveland, opened the Akron facility under the direction of Sister Lawrence. The dedication took place on the occasion of the 77th anniversary of the founding of the order.

St. Thomas Hospital opened in 1928 on North Hill in Akron.  It was administered by the Sisters of Charity of Saint Augustine.

Irish-born entrepreneur Thomas Deering bequeathed $100,000 to the Diocese of Cleveland to build the hospital in honor of his friend, the Reverend Thomas Mahar (1851-1914). The Cleveland priest came to Akron in 1880 to serve as pastor of St. Vincent de Paul and founded St. Mary’s Parish in 1896, overseeing the construction of the two churches and establishing St. Mary’s High School and St. Vincent’s High School .

Akron Catholic Churches has pledged $300,000 for the five-story hospital. The general public contributed $525,000 during a 10-day campaign.

Mahar’s sister, Patience O’Neil, donated the chapel in memory of her husband, Michael (1850-1927), the Irish-born merchant who founded O’Neil’s department store. For distinguished service, the widow received the Pro Ecclesia and Pontifice Medal from Pope Pius X during the consecration of the chapel.

Speaking at a public ceremony, City Judge AF O’Neil, son of Michael and Patience, hailed “a great day in the history of a great city.”

“Every time a building dedicated to human welfare opens its doors, it means nobler, higher and better things for our city,” O’Neil said.

“This hospital will not only be a place where illnesses are cured, where broken bodies are repaired, but the spirit of the Good Samaritan enters it and neither the patients, nor the staff, nor the management of this noble institution will not be distinguished on the basis of race, creed or station in life.

“Akron can indeed welcome the advent of the Sisters of Charity as humanity has always acclaimed their noble work. Akron welcomes and rejoices that a new and glorious institution has opened its doors for the country and for God.

“Angel of Alcoholics Anonymous”

Attending the opening ceremony was a frail little nun trying to find her bearings. Sister Ignatia, a former music teacher, had been transferred to St. Thomas Hospital after working in admissions at St. John’s Hospital in Cleveland.

She would be hailed as the “Angel of Alcoholics Anonymous”.

Sister Ignatia was born Bridget Della Mary Gavin in 1889 in County Mayo, Ireland, and immigrated to Cleveland at the age of 7 with her family. The girl attended the Immaculate Conception Church and entered the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine in 1914.

Reverend Daniel W. Egan, president of Steubenville College, chats with Sister Ignatia of Akron in 1949 at a Youngstown banquet in her honor.

She graduated from Notre Dame College and taught music at St. Augustine Academy, but a nervous breakdown forced her to give up teaching. Sister Ignatia recovered her health and found her calling as a clerk at St. Thomas.

“If someone had told me at the crossroads of life that I would spend my days caring for alcoholics, I would have withered,” she later recalled.

In June 1935, New York stockbroker Bill Wilson called St. Paul’s Episcopal Church while trying to resist the urge to drink while on a business trip to Akron. The Reverend Walter Tunks, rector of the church, put Wilson in touch with Henrietta Seiberling, who introduced him to Dr. Robert Holbrook Smith, a local doctor, at the Stan Hywet gatehouse. In Akron, “Bill W.” and “Dr. Bob” co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous, an organization that today has nearly 2 million members.

With the help of Dr. Bob, Sister Ignatia agreed in August 1939 to admit Walter B., a problem drinker, to St. Thomas with the diagnosis of “acute gastritis.” Dr. Bob had confided his own difficulties to the sister and discussed his friendship with Bill W. and the principles of AA.

“After checking bed availability, the only private room Sister Ignatia could find was a room used to store and care for the patient’s flowers,” wrote biographer Mary C. Darrah. “A bed was moved and the patient was transferred to the Flower Room. Sister Ignatia’s training was in progress.

She watched curiously as a procession of men visited the patient to share their stories of recovery.

“I couldn’t believe they were alcoholics,” Sister Ignatia later recalled. “I checked with them later, and they all said yes, they were alcoholics.”

She became convinced that drinkers could recover from addiction through a combination of proper medical care and Alcoholics Anonymous.

Sister Ignatia helped establish the alcoholics ward at St. Thomas Hospital in 1939.

Akron Hospital Revolutionized Care

In 1939, St. Thomas became the first hospital in the nation to establish a service for alcoholics. Over the next decade, the eight-bed ward treated more than 5,000 patients, an average of about 50 per month. The service had private access to the chapel, where patients could pray to a higher power.

The humble and frail Sister Ignatia was there to help. The 100-pound nun was kind but firm, gentle but strong. She learned to talk to alcoholics in their language.

Speaking to a group of patients, she noted: “Some of you guys no doubt started out with high-end whiskey – maybe even ended up there. But I will be there, there are many of you who have tasted bay rum, open switch or derailleur.

“Some of you have probably sat for days in a stupid bar, half-drunk, with no money, no credit, no hope, but praying for a ‘livey’ to fall in the joint.”

The open switch was sherry wine mixed with rubbing alcohol. Derail was antifreeze alcohol filtered through rye bread. How many nuns knew that?

Alcoholics Anonymous presented a plaque in 1950 to honor the sisters and staff. “St. Thomas Hospital became the first religious institution to open its doors to our society,” it reads. “May the loving devotion of those who worked here in our pioneer days be a shining and wonderful example of grace of God eternally placed before us all.

Sister Ignatia

After 24 years, Sister Ignatius was transferred in 1952 to St. Vincent’s Charity Hospital in Cleveland, where she helped establish Rosary Hall, dedicated to the care of alcoholics.

“I thought I could leave Akron without making a fuss of myself,” she said.

Not enough. A.A. members hosted a reception at St. Thomas Cafeteria to thank the nun for her lifesaving work and wish her continued success. Recovering alcoholics asked him for an autograph.

Over the next decade, Sister Ignatia helped more than 5,000 alcoholics at Rosary Hall, bringing her total to over 10,000.

She retired in 1965 to the Richfield Motherhouse, where she died a year later at age 77.

More than 3,000 people attended the funeral at St. John’s Cathedral, including Bill W., co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. She was buried in Calvary Cemetery in Cleveland.

The Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine continued their ministry at St. Thomas Hospital until 1971, when an advisory board took over administration. In 1989, St. Thomas merged with the City of Akron Hospital to form Summa Health, a secular institution.

A sister speaks with a patient in 1966 in the alcoholic ward at St. Thomas Hospital in Akron.

Chapel to dismantle

St. Thomas served as an annual stop on Founders Day when thousands of people visit Akron to celebrate the beginnings of Alcoholics Anonymous.

In 2006, Summa opened the Heritage Center and Sister Ignatia Chapel, a place for reflection, meditation and learning about the humble nun and AA.

Soon it will be dismantled. The stained glass windows have already been removed and will be installed at the new Summa Center of the city hospital.

The Juve Family Behavioral Health Pavilion, a $60 million, seven-story facility, will open in early 2023.

Four showcases of memorabilia from Sister Ignatia and Dr. Bob will also make the trip. Other artifacts from the chapel will be displayed at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School.

The future of the St. Thomas Building is uncertain as it approaches its centennial.

This is the last call to prayer at the old chapel.

Mark J. Price can be reached at [email protected]

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