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Pfau (Father John Doe)
and the Golden Books
Glenn F. Chesnut
Talk given at the 6th National
Archives Workshop at the Saturday morning session, September
29, 2001, held in southern Indiana, in Clarksville, immediately
across the river from Louisville, Kentucky. It was in Indianapolis
and this part of southern Indiana that Father Pfau served
as a parish priest during his younger years.
archivists and historians have done a marvellous job of
researching the lives of Bill W. and Dr. Bob and the people
who were most directly and closely associated with them.
We have wonderful biographies of Sister Ignatia, Ebby, Dr.
Bob's children, and so on.
time has come now where we need to move on to the next stage.
A.A. spread with extraordinary rapidity all across the United
States and Canada during the 1940's, 50's, and 60's. The
good old-timers of that period created a well-articulated
program in the testing ground of a wide variety of different
kinds of cities, towns, and societies. A good many of the
things which we need to know to keep genuine old-time A.A.
alive and well are best described in their words and writings.
Without a knowledge of them, we do not have to reinvent
the wheel from scratch, but at the very least we do have
to painfully reinvent much of the rest of the automobile
-- things like brakes, engines, transmissions, and headlights
-- and reinvent them all over again the hard, painful way.
particular, there are two of Bill W. and Dr. Bob's successors
whom we might well not be able to reinvent or replace so
successfully. If we turn down one free gift of God's grace,
even if he gives us another chance later on, the next gift
of his grace may not be as great, or it may have to be much
more painfully won.
three most published A.A. authors are Bill W., Richmond
Walker, and Ralph Pfau. Rich was a man from the Boston area
who later moved down to Daytona Beach, Florida, and wrote
the Twenty-Four Hours a Day meditational book. Father Ralph,
the first Roman Catholic priest to get sober in A.A., came
from Indianapolis and served churches both there and all
over southern Indiana. He is our great local Hoosier A.A.
hero. Under the pen name of Father John Doe, he wrote the
fourteen Golden Books, along with three other books, which
were read and studied by A.A. people all over the United
States, and still are being read and treasured today.
is now time for A.A. archivists and historians to start
doing some serious work on the life and writings of these
two people. I have a chapter on them in my book, The Higher
Power of the Twelve Step Program, which is just coming out.
Part of what I am presenting today is based on the material
in that chapter. But I am now working on a book which will
be totally devoted to these two men, where I will go into
much greater depth, both on their lives and on their ideas
about the spiritual life and the A.A. program.
Ralph Pfau (Father
contributions to A.A.
Again, the three most-published
A.A. authors during the course of A.A.’s first sixty
years have been Bill W., Richmond Walker (who wrote the
Twenty-Four Hours a Day book), and Ralph Pfau, author of
the fourteen Golden Books.
Father Ralph Pfau (November
10, 1904-February 19, 1967), who was a Roman Catholic priest,
is our local hero in this part of the country: He spent
years serving parishes in Indianapolis and southern Indiana,
some of them quite near where we are having this workshop
(like Jeffersonville, which is literally right next door,
from 1935-1937). He gave the keynote address at the first
Kentucky A.A. Conference in Louisville, Kentucky right across
the river, almost exactly fifty years ago -- that in particular
adds a nice anniversary touch to this particular workshop
In my part of the country,
the spirituality of everyone in the early A.A. groups was
shaped at a deep level by Richmond Walker’s Twenty-Four
Hour book, which was read from during the formal meetings
themselves. But many of the most dedicated also held meetings
after the meetings, in people’s homes, to study Father
Ralph’s latest Golden Book. One old-timer from my
area says that when he first came in, he soon began to notice
that all the old-timers who had really quality sobriety
and serenity were fans of Father Ralph. They read his books
over and over, and travelled hundreds of miles to hear him
speak or just to talk with him privately. Something special
about him and his message was communicated to them in this
fashion, which inspired them in turn to become more and
more deeply spiritual in their own everyday lives.
Ralph and Richmond Walker
played a complementary role in early A.A. Rich wrote about
the inner life of the spirit, and taught recovering people
how to make genuine contact with a higher power, down in
the depths of their hearts and souls. Ralph wrote about
the active life in the world, and taught recovering people
how to rise up from their meditations and begin taking concrete
action, so that they could serve as channels of God’s
grace to this outside world. Rich taught us how to be silent
and listen, while Ralph taught us how to make authentic
decisions and then make a real commitment. Between the two
of them, early A.A.’s had a marvellous pair of teachers,
who taught them how to deal with the two halves of their
lives, the inner and the outer.
Ralph was the first Roman
Catholic priest to get sober in Alcoholics Anonymous (he
came in on November 10, 1943), and under the pen name which
he chose to use, Father John Doe, he wrote his fourteen
Golden Books back in the 1940’s and 50’s and
early 60’s. They are still being read and used by
A.A.’s today: Spiritual Side (1947), Tolerance (1948),
Attitudes (1949), Action (1950), Happiness (1951), Excuses
(1952), Sponsorship (1953), Principles (1954), Resentments
(1955), Decisions (1957), Passion (1960), Sanity (1963),
Sanctity (1964), and Living (1964).
They were coming out once
a year at the beginning, but then he was slowed down as
he also published three much longer books: Sobriety and
Beyond (1955), Sobriety Without End (1957), and an autobiography,
which he entitled Prodigal Shepherd, in 1958 (a shorter
version of this ran as a three-part series in Look magazine).
He also issued a set of
thirty recordings in which he spoke on various issues, including
No. 11 “Father John Doe -- Alcoholic,” No. 22
“The Lord’s Prayer,” No. 2 “Alcoholism
-- Sin or Disease,” and Nos. 23-26 “The Twelve
Steps.” He spoke on these recordings with a flamboyant
old-time preacher’s style: his high voice, with its
sharp-toned southern Indiana accent, could belt through
to the back of a church without benefit of microphone, and
knock any drowsy parishioners on the back pews out of their
slow drift into sleep! His four-recording series on the
Twelve Steps, in particular, is still as useful today for
groups doing step studies as when he first gave them.
He invented the A.A. weekend
spiritual retreat, and held the first one ever given at
St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Indiana in June
1946. It was repeated the next year at the same location
on the weekend of June 6-8, 1947, and a small booklet was
printed to give the participants as a souvenir of their
time together. He wanted a fancy cover for it, so his printer
came up with some card stock covered with gold foil. This
was why they came to be called the Golden Books. This first
one was the Spiritual Side, which was so successful that
people began asking for additional copies in large numbers.
From then until 1955, in each subsequent year, he produced
another booklet on that year’s retreat theme, and
so the Golden Book series came into being.
Ralph criss-crossed the
United States and Canada from one side to the other, leading
similar weekend spiritual retreats, and giving talks as
an A.A. conference speaker. His cross-country journeys began
as what was intended to be a simple, relaxing vacation in
the Spring of 1948, driving from Indianapolis to southern
California by the Texas route, but mushroomed from there,
as A.A. groups, desperate for good, solid spiritual teaching,
began asking him to speak, and then come back the next year
and speak again. In his autobiography he talks about his
extensive journeys from 1948 to 1958:
"I have traveled nearly
750,000 miles in ten years of working with alcoholics. I
have spoken before nearly two hundred thousand members of
A.A. at retreats, meetings and conventions, and personally
discussed problems with more than ten thousand alcoholics."
At the point when he was beginning these travels (in 1948-49)
he also founded the Catholic Clergy Conference on Alcoholism,
which served a variety of useful purposes. It brought the
message to priests and nuns who were themselves suffering
from alcoholism, it helped to draw the benefits of the program
to the attention of parish priests who could recommend it
to parishioners who were alcoholics, and most important
of all, it helped to keep the Roman Catholic bishops all
over the United States favorably disposed towards A.A.
childhood in Indianapolis
Ralph was born on November 10, 1904, the
youngest of five brothers (a sixth brother had died before
he was born). His father, who was of French background in
spite of the last name, had died when Ralph was four, and
he said that he in fact hardly knew him in any real sense.
Ralph was raised by his mother, who came from an Indiana
German family. They were very devout Catholics, and many
members of the family had served the church, some rising
to positions of prominence: His Uncle George was a priest
and his Uncle Al was the Bishop of Nashville, Tennessee.
His older brother Jerome (“Jerry”) was a priest
who had earned a doctorate from Rome, and ended up teaching
at St. Mary-of-the-Woods college near Terre Haute, a medium-sized
city over in extreme western Indiana, along the Wabash river.
From a very early age, Ralph’s mother referred to
him as her son who was going to become a priest, which created
enormous pressures on him growing up.
He graduated from Cathedral High School
there in Indianapolis, and in September 1922, Ralph and
four of his classmates -- a little group of seventeen-year-old
boys away from home for the first time in their lives --
met at the Indianapolis railroad station and started the
long journey by train and horse and buggy for St. Meinrad
Seminary down in Spencer county, Indiana, about twelve miles
north of the great Ohio river. The Benedictine monks who
lived in the abbey there were the ones who ran the seminary.
The boys in Ralph’s class slept in a sixty-bed dormitory.
Each boy had a bed, a chair, and a row of hangers on the
wall. The outside toilets were sixty yards away.
In the fifth year at seminary, the small
handful of young men who remained had to make a major decision;
those who went on were first ordained subdeacon and then
deacon on successive days. In those days, these ordinations
were merely the next-to-last step before full ordination
to the priesthood. If you left seminary after that point,
the normal rules were that you could never marry, and there
was a deep cloud over you as far as good lay Catholics were
first total breakdown: 1928-1929
Ralph began moving towards his first total
psychological breakdown at that point. He could not eat,
he could not sleep, he could not think straight, and torrents
of thoughts circled around and around in his mind as he
grew ever more frantic. His obsessive perfectionism was
already so great, that he did not feel morally worthy to
be a priest. He had gotten in fights with other boys when
he was a small child, and once stole an apple off a pushcart.
That summer was a nightmare. He spent most
of it with his older brother Jerry, who was now teaching
at St. Mary-of-the-Woods, a Catholic women’s college
near Terre Haute, Indiana. The inability to eat or sleep
continued, and the constantly churning thoughts continued
to drive him frantic. Ralph got permission to see a doctor
in Indianapolis, who prescribed Nembutal (a barbituate)
and then later doubled the dose. That was to prove the other
half of his downfall. Ralph was to have as much trouble
with drugs as he did with alcohol -- all legal script of
course, prescribed by licensed physicians -- and he actually
got started on his drug habit well before he had ever touched
alcohol at all.
Returning for his last year at seminary,
the same crisis started mounting again, but even more severe.
On May 20, 1929, the night before his ordination to the
priesthood, he came down with a 104 degree temperature and
had a complete nervous and physical breakdown, but was ordained
priest anyway the next morning, sitting on a chair instead
of standing and kneeling like the rest. He was a priest
now, and it was completely irrevocable in almost all cases.
He had the “indelible mark” as it was called
theologically, inscribed upon his soul by the grace of ordination.
Prior to the 1960’s, it was rare indeed that a Roman
Catholic priest would be allowed to leave the priesthood
on honorable grounds.
as priest at the Old Cathedral
in Vincennes, Indiana: 1929-1933
Nevertheless, things looked up for a bit
when he was given his first assignment as a priest on September
13, 1929. He was to be an assistant pastor at the Old Cathedral
in Vincennes, and was also supposed to teach at Gibault
High School which was connected with the cathedral. His
job there was mainly to teach Latin classes. Vincennes is
a very old town with a history, located along the Wabash
river on the southwestern border of Indiana. The oldest
building is a French log home from 1790, and there is also
a Territorial Capital building which was used for territorial
assemblies from 1800 to 1813.
Ralph set up a rigid schedule that first
year in Vincennes where he was teaching, praying, or performing
his priestly duties at the cathedral every waking hour,
and only getting six hours sleep a night, but it seemed
to be working.
He asked to go to graduate school during
the coming summer vacation, and it was approved by the bishop
of Indianapolis: Fordham University, run by the Jesuits,
in New York city. So in 1930, he went off to the big city,
a simple Hoosier priest -- and there he met David B____
, a New Yorker now, but originally from Indianapolis. They
lived in a large apartment on Riverside Drive, not far from
Washington Heights, where Ralph was staying in a rectory.
David invited young Ralph to a party at their apartments.
It was a Great Gatsby sort of crowd, in a pious Catholic
way, sophisticated and moneyed.
Now they had alcoholic beverages at the
party of course, in spite of Prohibition (1920-33). David
offered Ralph a drink, and there at the beginning of summer
in 1930, at the age of twenty-five, he had his first taste
of alcohol: a highball made with two fingers of bourbon
in a glass with ice and ginger ale. Ralph went back to get-togethers
at David’s house frequently that summer, and had a
drink or two, and it never seemed to bother him.
from his teaching post:
massive resentment and compulsive drinking
Ralph did what any alcoholic-in-the-making
would do in these circumstances. He immediately developed
a massive resentment (which he was going to cling to for
the rest of his pastorate in that city), and by evening
was desperate for a drink. So he phoned a friend of his
named Bob who was a lawyer there in Vincennes, and invited
him over to try out some of the bourbon he had brought back
from New York. The compulsive drinking continued, and within
a month of returning to Vincennes there in the fall of 1932,
Ralph had run out of liquor. It was still the prohibition
era, so he went to another friend, named Lou, who said calmly,
"I know a guy in Jasper. Let's go see him." Jasper
is an old German town, with an interesting old church and
a very good German restaurant which serves huge helpings
of sauerbraten and wienerschnitzel and other traditional
dishes, sixty-five miles due west of where we are meeting
here in Clarksville, through some beautiful southern Indiana
hill country. But in those days, there was little law and
order among the hill people south of town.
"Everyone in that area knew
a guy in Jasper. It was the bootleg headquarters of
southern Indiana. Dozens of bootleggers in the area
south of there were using small restaurants and filling
stations as blinds while their real income was derived
from the sale of corn liquor."
tossed two empty gallon jugs into the back seat of
my car, and we drove the fifty-five miles to Jasper
in little more than an hour. Lou directed me to a
tiny restaurant and filling station at a crossroads."
It was corn liquor, Ralph said, which meant
nothing but hillbilly moonshine essentially, brewed in hundreds
of small stills back in isolated hollows by the local mountain
folk. But sophisticated city people said that if you put
it in a charred keg by a radiator and let it age three months
(if you could wait!) this was really quality stuff, at least
by the standards of the Prohibition era. Ralph had a radiator
in his study, so he was all set.
Ralph figured later that he was putting
down at least a quart of this local moonshine a day, which
came out of the still at 190 proof, close to absolute alcohol.
By Spring (it was now 1933) his brother Jerry, who was still
teaching at St. Mary-of-the-Woods in Terre Haute, Indiana,
told him that the bishop in Indianapolis had spoken to him:
“What’s the matter with Ralph? I’ve heard
rumors that he’s drinking rather heavily.”
second total breakdown: 1933
Ralph was frightened enough that he stopped
drinking totally, but then found out that could not sleep
or eat, and could not sit still long enough to read a single
sentence all the way through. When the summer of 1933 came,
Ralph finally went to Indianapolis, where a doctor put him
in a private room at St. Vincent’s Hospital there
in Indianapolis. He lay there in the little white room for
a week, and started trying to plan out how to commit suicide.
On the eighth day, by order of the bishop of Indianapolis,
Ralph was put in a car and driven to St. Louis, where they
installed him in a sanitarium run by the Alexian Brothers,
a Catholic order of lay brothers who ran hospitals and mental
The admitting doctor there asked him if
he drank, and like almost all alcoholics in that kind of
situation, Ralph instantly felt humiliated and lied: “Not
much ... just beer once in a while.” And then when
he lied about his drinking, the psychiatrists were fooled
into misdiagnosing him, and giving him the wrong treatment.
This particular doctor apparently came up with a theory
that Ralph had a guilt-complex and deep unconscious resentment
toward his mother, or something like that, and became convinced
that the only solution was to have Ralph released from the
In total desperation, Ralph called a Franciscan
priest, Father Peter Crumley, who was conducting a mission
at one of the churches in St. Louis. Father Crumley came
up with a different solution: he arranged with Ralph’s
bishop to have him sent back to New York to finish his master’s
degree at Fordham University, with a whole year in New York
to do that, and got him out of the mental hospital immediately.
in New York: 1933-34
So now Ralph was back in New York, for
a full year, as kind of a rest cure. He stayed off alcohol,
but only because he was afraid someone would see him drinking
and turn him in to the church authorities. He could not
sleep at night. Within a week of arriving there, he went
to a drugstore and started taking bromides again, and quickly
started increasing the dosage of these powerful downers
to massive proportions.
He stayed off the booze during the Fall
of 1933, and next Spring as well. But then he received his
M.A. from Fordham on Wednesday, June 13, 1934, and he decided
to stay on in New York city for the summer, working as an
assistant pastor in a Harlem church. The very next day he
phoned David B____ , the man from Indianapolis who now lived
in New York, and who had held the marvelous evening get-togethers
at his apartment on Riverside Drive. David invited him for
dinner that night, and Ralph started drinking again. When
he came back to the rectory, he slept soundly for the first
night in many months.
Anthony’s in Indianapolis: 1934-35
At the end of August 1934, the new bishop
of Indianapolis appointed Ralph assistant pastor at St.
Anthony’s in Indianapolis, which was a quite decent
post. He worked out his energies by becoming head coach
for their teams in football, basketball, and baseball.