Fr. Ralph Pfau, AKA Fr. John Doe
By Nancy O.
Tuesday, February 19, 2002
Today is the anniversary of Fr. Ralph Pfau’s death. He is believed to have been the first Roman Catholic priest to enter Alcoholics Anonymous.
Fr. Pfau was born on November 10, 1904, and died on February 19, 1967.
He was a priest in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, ordained at St. Meinrad Seminary, and received an MA in Education at Fordham University.
In the opening paragraph of his autobiography, “Prodigal Shepherd,” Father Pfau wrote: “All my life, I will carry three indelible marks. I am a Roman Catholic priest. I am an alcoholic. And I am a neurotic.”
I will address these in reverse order:
HE WAS A NEUROTIC
He admits to having “nervous breakdowns,” and spending time in sanitariums. He was twice relieved of his parish. Even after achieving sobriety, he continued to be plagued by depressions, which were sometimes severe and long-lasting.
HE WAS AN ALCOHOLIC
He never had a drink until about a year after his ordination. But by 1943 he was sufficiently worried about his drinking to investigate A.A. While responding to a call from a woman who said her husband was dying, he learned from the doctor that the man was not dying by merely passed out from a combination of alcohol and barbital. As Fr. Pfau was leaving the house he noticed a book on a shelf and asked if he could borrow it. It was “Alcoholics Anonymous.”
When he arrived home it was past 3 a.m., and he was longing for a drink. But he could not take a drink. He had to say Mass at 6 a.m., so could neither eat nor drink. But he knew he couldn’t sleep, so he sat down in a chair and started reading the book. And he couldn’t take his hands off that book.
Day after day for three or four weeks, whenever he had a spare hour or two he would sit in his room reading, studying and thinking. He didn’t miss a day reading the book through at least once. It became seared in his brain, “word for word, comma for comma, question mark for question mark.” He knew it from cover to cover. And to his amazement, during that entire period he did not take a drink.
One evening he noticed some AA pamphlets on a side table in the vestibule of the rectory. At supper he asked who had left the pamphlets and learned that they were left by Doherty “Dohr” Sheerin, described by the pastor as “the president or something of A.A. here in Indianapolis.”
Fr. Pfau studied the pamphlets as thoroughly as he had studied the Big Book, but he couldn’t believe they applied to him. He was not an alcoholic, or so he thought.
During this period of not drinking he stepped up the medication the doctor had prescribed, a combination of barbital and Dexedrine.
He was frightened and he needed help. So one night he telephoned Dohr Sheerin and asked “I was just wondering — could I possibly see you some time? I’d like to talk to you about — something. There’s no hurry.”
“I’ll be right over,” was the reply, and Dohr Sheerin hung up the phone before Fr. Pfau could reply. Sheerin invited him to attend the meeting the following Thursday. He agreed to attend “just as a spectator.” They talked for a few minutes more and Dohr left. That was November 10, 1941, Fr. Pfau’s 39th birthday.
For the next 25 years, despite severe problems with depressions, he never took another drink. For a short time he continued to take medications prescribed by his doctor and by Mayo Clinic. But after seeing a friend who had overdosed on seconal he hurried to a doctor in charge of the local “drying out” facility and told him that he was frightened. “I just got back from Mayo, where they gave me a couple hundred pills to take for my nervousness. But now I don’t know what to do with them.”
“Well,” said the doctor, “those people know what they’re doing up there. Did you tell them you are an alcoholic?” He then explained that if the doctors at Mayo Clinic had known he was an alcoholic they would never have given him the pills. So he went home and threw away the pills.
With the approval of his Archbishop, he devoted himself to helping other alcoholics, particularly alcoholic priests. He traveled more than 50,000 miles a year to address meetings, conduct retreats and help individuals.
His retreats were attended by thousands of Catholics and by many more thousands who were not Catholics. His retreat talks were eventually published in a series of “Golden Books.” They were so named because when he held the second annual retreat in June of 1947, at the request of some of the people who had attended the first retreat his talks were printed in a fifty-six page booklet with a gold cover, and distributed as a souvenir, through the generosity of the owner of the archdiocesan newspaper in Indianapolis. People began requesting copies of “the golden book of your retreat.”
His books “Sobriety Without End,” and “Sobriety and Beyond,” have been read by thousands.
In 1948 he founded the National Clergy Conference on Alcoholism, an organization devoted to the problems of priests, and directed it for many years. Its publications, especially “Alcoholism Source Book for Priests,” and the annual “Blue Book,” made a deep impact on the American Catholic Hierarchy.
Fr. John C. Ford, S. J., in an Epilogue to a new edition of Pfau’s autobiography, published after his death but planned by him, says that “the whole career of Father Pfau can only be understood in the light of the fact that he was a pioneer. He broke new ground. … Like any pioneer he met opposition and had to have fortitude. Like any Christian innovator he had to have deep faith. It was faith and fortitude that sustained his zeal for the salvation of the countless souls he helped.”
Bill Wilson had warned Fr, Pfau that he would receive opposition:
“Bill, a fine gentleman, taught me something I’ve never forgotten. ‘Father,’ he said, ‘you will do a great deal of good in a great many places. As a Catholic priest and an alcoholic, you can be instrumental in helping alcoholics wherever you go. But remember this — no matter how well you do, no matter how much you help others or how many you help, no matter what you say or how you say it, no matter what happens — you can’t and won’t please everyone. Wherever you go and whatever you do, someone will find a way to criticize you.
“‘You must take the criticism, no matter how unjustified, with tolerance and forbearance. Remember that resentments can lead to trouble, so you must work doubly hard not to harbor them. Don’t ever let anything bother you. I have taken criticism from unexpected sources many times since we began this program, and so will you. Just let it roll off your back like water off a duck’s, and you’ll be all right.”
While Father Pfau obviously had great affection for Bill Wilson, he apparently did not always agree with him. Four o’clock on Sunday afternoon July 3, 1955, at the International A.A. Convention in St. Louis, was a watershed moment in the history of Alcoholics Anonymous. The fifth General Service Conference met during the Convention. This marked the end of the five-year trial period for the Conference.
Bill Wilson had campaigned for the Conference vigorously.
But Father Pfau, who was influential, though controversial, had announced he was going to rise and speak against it. When Bill presented his resolution and a vote of approval was requested, reported Nell Wing, “We from the office sat with baited breath.” But Father Pfau did not object and the resolution passed.
Tex Brown, who died October 5, 2000, told me this story at the International Convention in Minneapolis a few months before his death. I asked him to write it for the AA History Buffs.
Tex attended the first International A.A. Convention in Cleveland in 1950. He told me “At the ‘Spiritual Meeting’ on Sunday morning the main speaker’s topic dealt with the idea that the alcoholic was to be the instrument that God would use to regenerate and save the world. He expounded the idea that alcoholics were God’s Chosen People and he was starting to talk about AA being ‘The Third Covenant,’ when he was interrupted by shouted objections from the back of the room. The objector, who turned out to be a small Catholic priest, would not be hushed up. There was chaos and embarrassment as the meeting was quickly adjourned. I was upset and in full sympathy with the poor speaker. I did not realize it at the time, but I had seen Father Pfau in action and Father Pfau was right. I had heard the group conscience and I rejected it.”
Bill told the story like this:
“On Sunday morning we listened to a panel of four A.A.s who portrayed the spiritual side of Alcoholics Anonymous — as they understood it. … A hush fell upon the crowd as we paused for a moment of silence. Then came the speakers, earnest and carefully prepared, all of them. I cannot recall an A.A. gathering where the attention was more complete, or the devotion deeper.
“Yet some thought that those truly excellent speakers had, in their enthusiasm, unintentionally created a bit of a problem. It was felt the meeting had gone over far in the direction of religious comparison, philosophy and interpretation, when by firm long standing tradition we A.A.’s had always left such questions strictly to the chosen faith of each individual.
“One member rose with a word of caution. [Apparently he was referring to Fr. Pfau.] As I heard him, I thought, ‘What a fortunate occurrence.’ How well we shall always remember that A.A. is never to be thought of as a religion. How firmly we shall insist that A.A. membership cannot depend upon any particular belief whatever; that our twelve steps contain no article of religious faith except faith in God — as each of us understands Him. How carefully we shall henceforth avoid any situation which could possibly lead us to debate matters of personal religious belief.”
HE WAS A ROMAN CATHOLIC PRIEST
For many years he doubted the validity of his priesthood. He had not chosen it. His mother wanted him to be a priest from the day he was born and would frequently introduce her little boy by saying “This is Ralph. He’s going to be a priest.” He was unsure he wanted to be a priest, and for many years, especially during his periods in sanitariums, and during the worst periods of his alcoholism, he continued to doubt the validity of his ordination. But he eventually came to believe that, though he had not chosen the priesthood, he was chosen for it.
Father Ford wrote at this end of his Epilogue: “Those who knew Father Ralph best, those who knew him when he was sick and when he was well, those who saw at first hand the evidence of his devotion to the cause of Christ, and to the sick alcoholic in whom he always saw Christ — and this despite the severest trials that depression can inflict — are the only ones who have a right to estimate the accomplishments of his life’s work. Fortunately these accomplishments live on in the organization he founded and in the countless lives of those who found sobriety and peace, under God, through Ralph Pfau.
“May his courageous soul rest in peace.”
“Prodigal Shepherd,” by Father Ralph Pfau and Al Hirshberg. [Father Pfau had planned that this new edition of his autobiography be published, as had his previous works, under his pen name “Fr. John Doe.” But since he died prior to its publication it was decided to use his name. Apart from the author, whenever a person is mentioned who is a member of A.A. only the first name is used. The sole exception is in the case of Doherty Sheerin who was the founder of A.A. in Indianapolis. The name of Doherty Sheerin, deceased at the time of publication, was used with the permission of his widow, Mrs. Dorothy Sheerin.]
Unpublished manuscript on the history of A.A. by Bob P.
Talk by Bill Wilson on 1950 Convention, date unknown.
Conversations with Tex Brown in July 2000.