Ralph 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.

  A.A. 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.

The 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.

In 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.

The 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.

It 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 John Doe)

Ralph's 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 session.

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.  

Ralph’s 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.  

St. Meinrad Seminary

  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.

St. Meinrad

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 concerned.

The 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.

St. Meinrad

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.

Ralph 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.

Removed 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."

"Lou 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.”

The 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 institutions.

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 priesthood.

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.

Back 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.

St. 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.