Father Edward Dowling was a Jesuit priest who ended up becoming the spiritual advisor to Bill Wilson, one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, at a pivotal time. Despite not being an alcoholic, Dowling found a spiritual family in AA.
Dawn Eden Goldstein chronicles Dowling’s life and journey with the group in her book “Father Ed: The Story of Bill W’s Spiritual Sponsor” (Orbis, $30). Eden Goldstein, who was the first woman to earn a doctorate in sacred theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, spoke with Chicago Catholic about Dowling’s life and legacy. The interview has been edited for length.
Chicago Catholic: Father Ed’s spiritual journey was not always easy. Would you tell us a little about his beginnings and how he got connected to the Jesuit community?
Eden Goldstein: Father Edward Dowling was born in St. Louis. He got the childhood nickname Puggy, because of his pug nose. He was first interested in baseball and was a star player in high school and in college. He was born in 1898 and died in 1960.
Before he entered the Society of Jesus, he spent a year as a daily newspaper reporter in St. Louis, and he maintained his contacts with his newspaper friends throughout his life. At the age of 21, in 1919, he entered the Society of Jesus.
Chicago Catholic: You share in your book that what he experienced at first was not what he expected.
Eden Goldstein: When he entered the Society of Jesus, he entered it because he wanted to be a saint. He wanted to be holy. And he felt that being a Jesuit was how God was going to make him holy.
That did happen, ultimately, but not quite the way he thought it would. In 1919, at the age of 21 — back then, 21 was a late vocation — he found himself surrounded by younger men, many of whom had gone to a seminary high schools, who had more experience in preparing directly for the for the priesthood.
Also, the Jesuits at that time were known as “God’s Marines.” They were known as this society that had military-like discipline. The way that played out in the Jesuit novitiate in Florissant, Missouri, was that there were bells every 15 minutes. No matter what you were doing, you had to drop it and do the next thing, each 15 minutes.
Very quickly he got overwhelmed and felt he was in the wrong place, but because he had all his hopes up on how this was how God was going to make him holy, he ended up entering into this existential spiritual crisis, wondering if even there was a God because his whole image of God’s plan for him seemed to be just shattered.
Later on, when he ministered to members of Alcoholics Anonymous, even though he himself was not an alcoholic, he described his time in the novitiate as his equivalent of an alcoholic hitting bottom. He also felt like he had done the third step of AA, which is making a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood him.
It took the entire novitiate for him to really come to that surrender.
Chicago Catholic: Father Ed had a Chicago connection that led him to Alcoholics Anonymous.
Eden Goldstein: It was 1940 — nine years into his priesthood — and he was based in St. Louis as the associate editor at a Jesuit publishing house called the Queen’s Work. He stayed in touch with his old journalism friends, including a reporter from the Chicago Daily News named Edwin Lahey.
I’ve been permitted by Lahey's daughter to break his anonymity, because normally we respect the anonymity of members of AA. Edwin was a terrible drunk and his alcoholism had already led to his wife leaving him and going to stay with family and taking their two baby girls.
He was on the verge of getting fired from his Chicago Daily News job. It was actually a nun, Sister Mary Alice Rowan, who contacted Father Dowling and said, “You know, your friend Lahey is on the verge of losing both his marriage and his job. You’ve got to help him.”
Father Ed had this great gift for helping people with any kind of problem. And this was long before he ever met Bill W. and became involved with a ministry to AA.
Father Ed managed to extract from Edwin a promise not to drink again, and his wife took him back. Father Ed didn’t know about AA, and AA at that time only had a small handful of chapters.
A few weeks later, he stopped in Chicago and made a visit to the Laheys. He was very happy to find that Edwin was still not drinking. But he was a little unnerved to find that he was spending time hanging out with his alcoholic reporter friends, and other, you know, former drinking buddies in this group that they were calling Alcoholics Anonymous.
Edwin offered to take Father Ed to a business meeting, like an administrative meeting of AA where they also had the usual things that happened at a meeting, including the personal testimonies. Father was immediately transfixed hearing the alcoholics’ stories, which are a major part of any AA meeting.
Father picked up a copy of “The Big Book,” which had only been published a year earlier, and it included the 12 steps. The “Big Book” is the manual of AA, which was written by Bill Wilson along with input from Dr. Bob and the first 100 members of AA.
Back in St. Louis, he showed it to another Jesuit, who pointed out that the 12 steps embodied principles that are in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits.
Father Ed credited the spiritual exercises which he made during his novitiate with really enabling him to be secure in his vocation and to find healing and to go deeper into his faith.
He came to realize that through the 12 steps, the same principles from the exercises that had been so healing to him, could be spread not only to Catholics, but to everyone, non-Catholics and Catholics alike.
He imagined that the person who had written these 12 steps was a master of Ignatian spirituality, so he tracked down Bill W. at the AA clubhouse in New York. He said to him, “I’m very interested in the similarities between your 12 steps and the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola.” And Bill Wilson, who was in a very bad mood that day said, “Never heard of him.” Father Ed laughed, and that laugh broke the ice between them.
Before Bill W. knew what he was doing, he was making his fifth step to Father Ed. The fifth step is admitting to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
From that day on, Father Ed became a spiritual adviser and mentor to Bill Wilson. Their friendship lasted 20 years, from when they met in November 1940 until Father Ed’s death on April 3, 1960.
I think a lot of people don’t know the extent to which a Jesuit priest influenced the spiritual development of Bill Wilson personally and also of AA.
Father Ed was the first person to really champion the 12 steps very publicly for people who needed help overcoming any problem, not just alcoholism. He started the first AA chapter in St. Louis, started the first Narcotics Anonymous chapter in St. Louis. And, perhaps most importantly, Father Ed spent an enormous amount of energy working to convince other religious leaders, not just Catholics, that they should embrace AA. At that time, religious leaders were suspicious of it.
He did a great deal of work convincing other religious leaders, that AA wouldn’t take people away from whatever faith they were practicing. Rather, it would help them to go deeper into the faith that they had.
Chicago Catholic: You’re not in a 12-step program; how did learning about Father Ed and AA affect you?
Eden Goldstein: I was interested in writing about Father Ed because I was just so touched by the story of this Jesuit who was a non-alcoholic had such a heart to help not only alcoholics, but anyone with a problem. People said of Father Ed, that they felt more comfortable coming to him with a problem than without one.
Every day outside his office at a Jesuit publishing house, there would be a line of people throughout the day, from all walks of life, from high society right down to unhoused people coming to him for his for assistance.
I can’t even begin to describe how much he has influenced my life, both in terms of really making me think more about the mercy of God, which was something that was very important to him, but also just in helping me to be more outward directed as he was.
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