In 1956, Austin Ripley, a Catholic layman and recovered alcoholic, founded Guest House to treat Catholic clergy and Religious suffering from alcoholism. Since then, it has been the means for more than 7,300 priests, Brothers, Sisters, deacons, and seminarians to be released from the ordeal of active alcoholism and drug dependency. Today, many of these men and women lead sober and productive lives. Dan Kidd, president and CEO of Guest House, quotes one participant: “Guest House made me the priest I always wanted to be.”
The National Council of Alcoholism and Related Drug Problems is now an affiliated program/service of Guest House. For more information on Guest House, visit guesthouse.org or call 800-626-6910.
“You’re not going to live six months,” the doctor told me. The sad thing was, I didn’t care. The year was 1974, and I was an alcoholic in denial.
I can’t claim I didn’t know what alcohol could do to a person, especially one with a family history of it, which was the case with me: All but one of my uncles died of alcoholism, and my father had warned me and my siblings about the dangers of drink. Ironically, I was ministering to alcoholic priests when my addiction began in earnest. In January of 1963, six months after my ordination, my bishop asked me to take care of a priest who’d been an active alcoholic for years. When I arrived at the parish, things were in complete disarray. The mail lay in piles on the floor. Bills had not been paid. The electric company and the gas company were threatening to shut off the power and heat. This was my first glimpse of what alcoholism could do to a priest. It wasn’t my last.
Over the years it began to get to me, and a daily pattern developed. When I’d come home from my high school teaching job, I would sit down with the priest I was ministering with at the time, who was an alcoholic. I would share the news of my day over a drink with him: a little whisky, a little scotch, maybe a beer on a hot day. I was seeing a good Catholic psychiatrist for depression, but in the end, the alcohol won. Alcohol worked better than any therapy or antidepressant my doctor prescribed. It eased my anxiety and gave me comfort. When I was drinking, I felt good. But my life was going down the drain.
In 1969, after drinking and taking sedatives, I nearly died in a car accident on the way home from my parents’ house. I passed out on the drive and later awoke to the sight of police, people pulling me out of my totaled car, a crowd of horrified onlookers. I had fractured teeth, a concussion, lacerations in my head, cracked vertebrae. But in the depths of my addiction, I refused to make a connection between my drinking and the accident. In my mind, I didn’t even have a drinking problem. I got a friend to smuggle alcohol into the hospital for me so I could drink while I was recovering.
After that, things got worse. My stomach was shot. I lost control of my bowels. My body was a mess. My parents confronted me every chance they got. “Can’t you see what the alcohol is doing to your life?” they’d say. Friends and superiors confronted me too. But I wouldn’t listen.
When I bottomed out in Christmas of 1974, I was consuming three packs of cigarettes and a quart of whisky a day. I had walking pneumonia, strep, and bronchitis. The doctor had to give me antibiotics, but they wouldn’t do a thing because I wasn’t eating properly. “I can’t do anything for you anymore,” my doctor told me finally. “You’re going to die.” But I was in a state of despair. I didn’t care what happened.
The turning point came in May of 1975, when my bishop forced me to act. “Bill, you’ve got to deal with this,” he said. “You told me you were going to deal with it. You’re not. I want you to go to treatment. If you don’t, you’re finished. You can’t function anymore.” He told me he was sending me to Guest House, a treatment center for clergy and Religious.
I was terribly hurt and resentful, even outraged. I was also a little indignant — my bishop drank a fair bit himself. But he was firm.
“You have to go,” he said. “I’ve set it up for you. You have to go tomorrow.”
Reluctantly, I agreed. But when he left, I was very angry. I went to see my spiritual director, a fellow priest. “Bill,” he said, “what harm can it do for you to go up there and be evaluated?”
On the drive back to my rectory, I passed the cemetery where my mother, who had died in 1971, was buried. It was a warm, humid day in June, but there was a slight breeze, and it seemed to carry a grace to me. I thought of the work I was doing at the time, educating developmentally disabled people. I was urging them to exert themselves to do the simplest chores like putting on a shirt or clothes, or wear a helmet so if they had convulsions they wouldn’t fall down and hurt themselves. If I can ask them to do all these things, I thought, why can’t I do what the bishop asked me? And so I finally surrendered to it, and grace began to come into my life. The war was over. Now I had to deal with the damage and find a way to rebuild.
It wasn’t going to be easy. A lot of difficult steps lay ahead, the first of which was to explain to the people I worked with what was going on. At the time I was pastor of a small parish. I was also directing diocesan programs for the developmentally disabled as well as a program for the elderly. On that very day, June 11, I went to the place where I was ministering these programs and told the staff that I was probably an alcoholic, since I was being sent for evaluation. The staff all congratulated me for going along with the bishop. While I was gone, the bishop’s office would arrange for people to come and help with the work I was doing. They wanted me to focus on my health.
The next day, on June 12, 1975, a priest classmate of mine took me to Guest House for treatment. We made a stop on the way to get me my last drink so I wouldn’t go into a shaky delirium. But it was only putting off the inevitable. I was in the hospital the next morning, fevered and shaky. Catholic Digest - end of part one
Guest House had put me in the hospital to make sure I was detoxing properly. I also had to be treated for pneumonia and bronchitis. But once I had made up my mind that I was an alcoholic, the following day I actually had no desire to take a drink. That was a great grace; not everyone is that lucky.
There are no shortcuts to treatment for alcoholism. You just have to work with nature and pray for some kind of recovery. I was in treatment from June until September, during which time I received a lot of encouragement, especially from the sober priest from Chicago who was appointed my “guardian angel” for eight weeks and visited me during my time in the hospital. The more I surrendered to the process, the more peace came into my body and mind. Everyone at Guest House was so respectful and loving and kind that I began to relax and understand how sick I was.
Every priest, Brother, or nun who goes through Guest House programs — including me — becomes an expert on alcoholism and addiction. At the same time that I was learning, I was attending AA meetings where I would learn strength and hope from other people’s experiences. I’d learn how to deal with it a day at a time by not taking that first drink, by going to my meetings, by getting a sponsor, by doing what I was told.
I learned to follow that routine on a daily basis. I would eat properly, go to AA meetings, see my doctor, keep my appointments, interact with the other priests in treatment, and learn to get to my true feelings. I still had a certain amount of shame and remorse. Guest House has helped me to deal with that through group sessions. I’d often been told that alcoholics were bad people, but at Guest House, I learned that I wasn’t a bad person; I was a sick person trying to get well. A big turning point came when I received the Anointing of the Sick through a Guest House program. I felt that God was working with me, not against me; that God wasn’t going to judge me. I just had to focus on getting well and staying well one day at a time by living the principles of the program. Over time, I began to live a healthy emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual life.
That takes time, though, and I ended up needing more treatment than I’d thought. I went back to my diocese in early September, but they put me in the chancery, which was a mistake. I’m not a chancery person. I went into a depression again, so I returned to Guest House in late February and stayed until June of 1976. After that, my diocese sent me to a wonderful parish with a pastor who understood alcoholism and was very supportive and understanding. I was able to get my head on straight, develop a routine in my priestly life, and then take my recovery one day at a time.
My last drink was on June 12, 1975. I’m now in my 35th year of sobriety. Over the years since my time at Guest House I’ve been giving back through my involvement with the National Catholic Council on Alcoholism and Related Drug Problems (Guest House has a policy that each person who finishes its program receives a membership). I went to my first NCCA conference in 1977, and it just blew me away. They were talking about developing policies to intervene for alcoholic priests. When I came back to my diocese, my bishop said, “Bill, do what you can to establish a health care policy to help other priests who are sick.” After eight years of evaluation and study, we established a health committee. I was really determined to help.
My involvement with NCCA has been one of the great joys of my life. In 1985, I was working at a sabbatical program in Rome and was asked by Cardinal Fiorenzo Angelini to give a talk at the first conference of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers, established that same year by Pope John Paul II. Mother Teresa was sitting right in front of me, which made me more nervous. But when I finished my testimonial she thanked me for my talk; I was thrilled to death. Cardinal Angelini invited me to tell my story again at the Vatican in 1991 and I was introduced to Pope John Paul II. In that same year I became certified for substance abuse counseling and have maintained my certification ever since.
We take it for granted in this day and age that an alcoholic can live a sober life, but for years, many people didn’t think that was possible. That’s what AA has done for our country. I’ve lived without a drink for 34 years. That’s a long time for an alcoholic to go without a drink. That’s a miracle. And it’s not just me: Through Guest House, through the NCCA, we’ve restored so many priests to service. It’s a very great privilege to be part of that.
Today, I’m a retired priest. I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s about six years ago, and it has been much less stressful to simply deal with the spiritual aspect of being a pastor (Mass, Confession, etc.), than to deal with the administrative responsibilities of the role. I also give a lot of serenity retreats to recovering alcoholics. I’m 73 and Parkinson’s is progressing my age, so it’s getting a little harder for me to get around. But I’m a joyful person despite my struggles. I get by with a little help from my friends, as the Beatles say. It helps to live closer to my family, who are thrilled about my sobriety, and my doctor.
My faith helps keep me going. Along with a sense of humor. A lot of people don’t understand how alcoholics can laugh about their sickness. They think, How can they laugh about getting drunk? This is serious. But at AA, we all know that. The point is that the alcoholic has survived. When I went to Guest House, I was in an advanced stage of alcoholism, a sickness that had progressed over a period of 10 years. Alcoholism was taking my life, but with the help of Guest House, I took it back. Catholic Digest - end of part two
Nothing mysterious about author's mission[but it doesn't seem to be that well known in Minnesota]
This month’s issue of the Catholic Digest, a publication of the Roman Catholic Church, features an article “How Guest House saved my life,” by Father Bill, a priest of that faith whose life had been trapped by his addiction to alcohol. He tells of ministering with another priest who had been an active alcoholic for years, and in the process became addicted himself.
He found himself “consuming three packs of cigarettes and a quart of whiskey a day.” After 10 years of this addiction, his bishop sent him to Guest House, a treatment center for Roman Catholic clergy that had been founded by an recovering alcoholic, Austin Ripley, a devout layman and parishioner of St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Menomonie.
It was there he wrote what he called “Minute Mysteries,” featuring Professor Fordney. The series found its way not only in more than 100 newspapers, but also in school classrooms where English teachers found that the short little mysteries aided “...in inferential thinking and reading for details... and productive to start each day ...with a minute mystery that the class tries to solve.”
Ripley also conceived a new feature, “Photo Crime,” starring detective Hannibal Cobb who solved hundreds of cases based on one or more photographs combined with a few sparse paragraphs that held the clues for the readers of Look Magazine to solve in every issue. One memorable story was set in Menom-onie, and there were others with apparent local ties.
That was the way he made his living, but as a recovering alcoholic, he felt he must help others with the addiction he had fought for most of his life. In 1947, five years after he stopped drinking, he founded Hazelden, a treatment center in Minnesota specifically for alcoholic Roman Catholic priests.
Two years later, other key supporters decided that the patient base should be incorporated “...as a sanatorium for curable alcoholics of the professional class.” Today there are Hazelden units located in several states, and in London, England, and it is still growing and open to all faiths.
Although Ripley was rightly proud about his successful launch of Hazelden, it appears that he felt that opening the facility to the “professional class” did not fulfill his vision of what would be best for the reclamation of alcoholic clergy of the Roman Catholic Church.
Four years later, in 1951, he found an answer in establishing a retreat that he called “Guest House” in nearby Chippewa Falls, dedicated to the treatment of Roman Catholic priests, deacons, brothers ad seminarians to, as he put it, “save the individual; save the vocation.” It was a new beginning.
It wasn’t long before the new facility in Chippewa Falls became inadequate to the needs. Ripley found that newspaper magnate William Scripps’ mansion in Lake Orion, Mich., valued at moe than $2 million, was available for a mere $185.000.
Ripley came up with part of the money to buy the estate, and the Archdiocese of Detroit paid the balance. Ripley’s Guest House had found a new home.
Today, the Michigan-based Guest House has an annual budget of more than $7 million and operates two major licensed and accredited treatment centers — Lake Orion and another in Rochester, Minn. Services of the Guest House now involve cooperative ventures with Roman Catholic centers in Downingtown, Pa., and in Mangalore, India.
Austin Ripley’s original concept remains “devoted to caring for Roman Catholic priests, deacons, brothers, seminarians, [and since, 1994, women religious], suffering from alcoholism, chemical dependencies, and other addictions involving food and gambling It has been estimated by one source that more than 9,000 priests, male religious, and women religious have passed through the doors of Guest House, with a nearly 75 percent success in recovery. This has been great achievement for a mystery writer, a recovering alcoholic himself, who succeeded in his own pursuit of healing.
During the early 1940s, I worked Sunday afternoons at Lee’s Drug Store. Mr. Ripley always stopped in after church to buy a newspaper, and he always had time to visit. He was a tall gentleman, always impeccably dressed, and I valued his friendship.
After I returned from WWII, I enrolled in journalism at UW-Madison. On one occasion, to test our ability to write under fire, we were assigned to interview a “famous” person visiting Madison. It was a snap assignment for me — Ripley happened to be in town that week and granted me an interview.
My instructor was very pleased and a little surprised that I was able to interview Ripley. Dunn County (Wisc.) News