PART THREE of "Ralph Pfau (Father John Doe) and the Golden Books," talk given by Glenn F. Chesnut at the 6th National Archives Workshop, September 29, 2001, held across the river from Louisville, Kentucky, in Clarksville, Indiana.

Alcoholics Anonymous

  God in his providence started pushing all the pieces together quickly now. Ralph was called at two o’clock one morning to give the last rites to a man who was supposed to be dying. It turned out the man was not dying, but had just passed out from combining alcohol with barbitals. This was an ominous message to Ralph, who had been playing with doing exactly the same thing. And then as he was leaving the man’s home, he saw a book on the mantel in the living room with the title Alcoholics Anonymous. For some reason he could not explain, something inside seemed to push him suddenly into asking to borrow it. The man’s family told him to go ahead and take the book with him, so he carried it back to the rectory, and there at three o’clock in the morning started reading it. He could not put it down until he had finished the whole book. For the next three or four weeks, he read the Big Book through at least once a day, sometimes twice. And he didn’t drink. Something very strange was happening.

He also noticed that there were A.A. pamphlets set out on a side table in the vestibule of the rectory. When he inquired, he was told that they had been left there by a good Irish Catholic named Doherty Sheerin, who was a wonderfully fine man, the other priests all said, a retired manufacturer. Ralph started reading them too, and they gripped him the same way the Big Book had: “They told stark, simple stories of despair and hopelessness and terror and defeat,” but also -- even more importantly -- announced a way out of the horror.

Finally on November 10, 1943 (the evening of his thirty-ninth birthday) Ralph phoned Dohr, who came over to the rectory, and talked the priest into going to an A.A. meeting. The next one would be on Thursday night, at 8 p.m., at a small branch library called the Rauh Library. A.A. in Indianapolis was still small and struggling; there were only seven people at the meeting.

A.A. was just barely getting started in Indiana. The Indianapolis group had only been in existence for three years at this time. There were only three other major groups at that time: the Evansville group had been the first started (several months before Indianapolis), then Fort Wayne got a group begun in December 1941 and South Bend got one on February 22, 1943.

Ralph’s first two years in A.A. were marked by the typical kind of struggles that new members have. As is common, Ralph had a good deal of trouble admitting that he really was an alcoholic. Intellectually, he kept on arguing for a long time that perhaps his real problems were all psychological, with maybe even some theological issues thrown in too. Fortunately, his gut had told him from the start -- beginning when he first borrowed that Big Book from the man’s living room and kept on re-reading it compulsively over and over -- that A.A. had something which he desperately needed.

Holy Cross in Indianapolis: 1945-47

  One senior priest who had truly liked and appreciated Ralph had been Father Sullivan, who had been the head pastor when Ralph was at Holy Rosary right before the Second World War. Father Sullivan had been an army chaplain during the war, but now in August 1945, he was back home and had just been appointed pastor of Holy Cross parish in Indianapolis. He asked for Ralph to be appointed his assistant pastor there. At first they got along quite well, and he allowed Ralph to become involved in as many A.A. events as he wanted.  

A.A. spiritual retreats

  When Ralph had been sober for a year and a half or so, he began to feel frustrated about one thing. When he went out on twelve step calls, drunks would not accept anything he told them, because he was a priest, and they thought he was just preaching the old moral condemnation line at them. He talked about it with Dohr several times, and Dohr told Ralph that he knew he had special things to give to the program, and the only problem was to discover what it was that God needed him to do. When the solution finally came, Ralph said, “the answer was so obvious that I felt foolish because I hadn’t thought of it sooner.” It was a regular practice in the Catholic church to have spiritual retreats, where a retreat director gave talks on Catholic belief and practice, interspersed with periods when people could ask questions, and periods for group discussion sessions, and some free periods also just for rest and quiet meditation. Catholics had always found that they could derive great spiritual benefits from these retreats.

Ralph decided to run a trial experiment by trying just a simple one-day retreat. He held it at the Little Sisters of the Poor, starting after church on Sunday, and running through till dinner-time in the evening. This was probably somewhere in the latter part of 1945. It was a totally novel experience for him. There was no preaching on Catholic dogma, because everything was centered purely on A.A. principles and beliefs. But more importantly, only twenty of the sixty-seven men who came were Catholics -- the other 70% all came from Protestant backgrounds.

The experiment was so successful, that Ralph decided to try a full weekend retreat, so in early April of 1946 he wrote to St. Joseph’s College at Rensselaer, Indiana, and they finally agreed to let him use their buildings during their summer vacation, in June of 1946. This was the first weekend-long spiritual retreat ever held in Alcoholics Anonymous. Rensselaer was up in the northwestern corner of Indiana, an area of the state with which Ralph was not nearly so familiar. This weekend affair was again a rousing success.

Father Ralph's autograph on one of the many
books he published on A.A. spirituality

His theme for this retreat was “The Spiritual Side of Alcoholics Anonymous,” which went over so well that he gave the same talk at all the retreats he conducted over the next year, and finally put it out on a recording. This was the first of what was eventually a set of thirty phonograph records which took his voice to A.A. people all over the United States. And this was also where the Golden Books began.

Ralph’s decision to make
A.A. his full-time work

  Ralph had always been able to work quite smoothly with Father Sullivan, who had been the head pastor when Ralph was assigned to Holy Rosary, back before the war (in 1939-1942) and who had explicitly asked to have Ralph assigned to him as his assistant here at Holy Cross in 1945. He liked Ralph, and they seemed to be able work together well for the first couple of years.

But Ralph was spending more and more time on A.A. work, and Father Sullivan finally decided that it had gone too far. In October 1947, Ralph was scheduled to conduct a one-day retreat at the disciplinary barracks at Fort Benjamin Harrison, near Indianapolis. Just one day beforehand, Father Sullivan came up with something else he wanted Ralph to do, and ordered him to cancel the retreat at the barracks. Ralph protested very, very strongly and angrily, and Father Sullivan backed down. But the day after the retreat, Dohr made Ralph go in and apologize to Father Sullivan.

Someone at that point got in contact with the new archbishop of Indianapolis: we do not know whether it was an outraged Father Sullivan or an apprehensive Dohr. At any rate, the new archbishop sent for Ralph the very next day, and offered him a chance to devote his full time to Alcoholic Anonymous on official appointment from the bishop IF Ralph could figure out how to pay his own living expenses while doing so. Ralph reported this back to Dohr, who then used his contacts and influence to pull a rabbit out a hat. One of Dohr’s closest friends was A. Kiefer Mayer, who was at that time the vice-president of the Kiefer-Steward wholesale drug supply house in Indianapolis. Mayer called Ralph in and wrote him a check for $600 on the spot -- this had been Ralph’s annual salary as a priest.

From Augustine, the great African
saint, Ralph learned that he did not have
to be perfect, and finally could allow
himself to become a real human being.

Now Ralph had been plagued most of his life by the inability to make authentic decisions, and commit himself to real action. He liked to sabotage himself by destructive self-criticism: “I am not good enough. I am a bad person. I will always be a failure.” That is why it is so startling to see Ralph, after only four years in the A.A. program, acting in this new and startlingly different way. There were no this-worldly guarantees at all. He had had a few small successes in Indiana, but had never travelled outside that state on A.A. activities. Even in the United States as a whole, there were still only a relatively small number of A.A. groups here and there back in 1947. But he decided to do it, and he committed himself totally.

St. Bridget’s rectory
in Indianapolis: 1947-50

  On Christmas Day of 1947 -- the Catholic holy day of celebration of new birth and the beginning of new life -- the archbishop released Ralph from his parish duties at Holy Cross, and he moved to St. Bridget’s rectory in Indianapolis, where he paid room and board for a small extra room they had there, and for his meals. It was now sink or swim.

Without God’s help, he would never survive. And that help came, but as it so frequently does, it appeared to come about almost by accident, in a way that Ralph would never have expected. His sponsor Dohr insisted that Ralph needed a vacation before throwing himself into his new labors; the intense young priest had not had a real vacation in years.

So just on a whim, on a fine Spring day in 1948, Ralph decided to get in a car and drive out to Los Angeles on the west coast and back. Dohr helped him pack his suitcase the night before, and just before Ralph closed it up, he said, “Wait a minute,” and got a copy of a directory of all the A.A. groups in the United States and placed it on top of the pile of clothes.

God works in mysterious ways. The nice weather lasted till he crossed the border into Texas, when he ran into a fierce dust storm. To make matters worse, he discovered after a while that he had taken the wrong highway out of Texarkana. He looked at his road map, and the only sizable town near by was Wichita Falls, Texas, which was about a hundred miles further. But he was dying of heat in the car, because he had to keep his windows closed to keep out the choking dust, and he realized that he was going to have to quit for the day. He checked into a hotel in Wichita Falls about 5:30 that afternoon, totally off his planned route, hot, dirty, exhausted, and disgusted. The only thing he could think about was how badly he wanted to drink. He took off his clothes and climbed into the shower to cool off, and continued obsessing about how good just one drink would be. He opened up his suitcase to put on clean clothes, and there was the A.A. directory. He checked the Texas listings, and to his surprise, there was in fact an A.A. group in Wichita Falls, and they were having a meeting that very night.

Ralph the A.A. speaker

  When he walked through the door of the meeting room, they greeted him. When they found out that he was a priest, and from Indianapolis, they asked him to be the speaker for the meeting. As he stood up in front of the group, he noticed a chill in the air, and some members talking to one another and getting ready to walk out. He had a two strikes against him from the start: he was from the north, and he was a Roman Catholic priest. There were many Protestants, particularly in the south, who viewed Roman Catholic priests as the devil’s own hencemen. But he bravely launched into his lead:  

  "'My named is Father Pfau. I am not going to spell it for you. You can use your imagination. Most people do. I am a member of the Indianapolis group of Alcoholics Anonymous and I am an alcoholic' .... Then I told my story -- a combination of the details of my life and my original talk on the spiritual side of Alcoholics Anonymous."  

  And when he had finished, the room burst into a thunder of warm, appreciative applause. Afterwards, several men came to him and asked him to repeat his talk at the Southwestern A.A. convention in Austin in two months, and Ralph agreed to come. And every year since that point, Ralph said, the group in Wichita Falls had brought him back to speak again. When Ralph finally arrived in Los Angeles several days later, the same thing happened at a meeting in North Hollywood.

Then things took off wildly: he was able to set up a nation-wide itinerary of speaking engagements which kept him traveling constantly for five months, from November 1948 down to April 1949. California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, North and South Carolina, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Twelve talks in fourteen days in southern California alone, seventeen speaking engagements in Texas alone. An audience of six hundred in Rome, Georgia. The A.A. anniversary dinner on St. Patrick’s day in Miami, Florida. Then after just a brief rest back home in Indianapolis, he was back on the road again in the summer of 1949. He spoke at the anniversary celebration in Montreal up in Canada, and at the Southeastern A.A. convention in Richmond, Virginia.

Chaplain of the Good Shepherd Convent in
Indianapolis: 1950 till his death in 1967

  Ralph finally found a truly ideal base of operations there in Indianapolis, where he could continue his speaking and writing, and his spiritual retreats, with a support staff and no outside distractions. In the Spring of 1950, he moved into the Good Shepherd Convent in Indianapolis. His ostensible title was chaplain, which meant that he was supposed to say masses for the nuns and hear confessions, but they allowed him to travel as much as he wanted to. Mother Austin, the mother superior, assigned three of the Magdalen nuns (who were cloistered and could not leave the convent grounds) to become his secretaries, file clerks, printers, and shipping clerks. She gave him a three-room suite: one was a large office for general purposes, another served as the printing room, and the smallest served as Ralph’s private office during the day and his bedroom at night.  

Ralph Pfau: Nov. 10, 1904-Feb. 19, 1967

  Ralph was on the road again when he died on a Sunday, on February 19, 1967, in Our Lady of Mercy hospital in Owensboro, Kentucky, over on the south bank of the Ohio river, separated by just the river’s width from his own beloved Indiana. His niece told me that he went to a doctor to receive a shot that was supposed to keep him from getting air sick, and the needle which the physician used had apparently not been sterilized properly, because Ralph contracted hepatitis from it. The reason he rushed to Owensboro, was because he knew a doctor there whom he trusted, a man who was also in the A.A. program, but neither the physician nor the hospital there were able to save his life.

Even the outside world considered him important enough to rate a short obituary in the Chicago Tribune. Ralph’s closest friends and supporters in Indianapolis reprinted his autobiography shortly after his death. They put a brief note at the beginning which said simply that they were fulfilling his wish for a new edition

  ". . . in the hope that those who read it will receive the courage to live and die as he did. A sober alcoholic."  

  Karl Menninger wrote a brief foreword in his honor, and Father John C. Ford, S.J., who taught at Weston College in Massachusetts, wrote the equally simple epitaph at the end:  

  "May his courageous soul rest in peace."  

St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little
Flower, was the other key saint whom
Father Ralph referred to over and
over in his Golden Books

The quotations in this talk were taken from the principal source for Ralph's life: Ralph Pfau (Father John Doe) and Al Hirshberg, Prodigal Shepherd (Indianapolis, Indiana: SMT Guild, 1989 [orig. pub. 1958]). This work has been kept in print in more recent years by the Hazelden Foundation in Center City, Minnesota, where telephone orders can be placed at 800-328-9000.