Patron Saint of Alcoholics

Okay, so he's not a Saint. Not yet, anyway. Why? Because canonisation requires evidence of a physical miracle. That’s why. Guess the Vatican honchos never got to witness the many miracles that take place at an A.A. meeting. Otherwise they’d surely have no reason not to name him the Patron Saint of Alcoholics.

We’re talking about Matt Talbot, the Dublin-born drunk who went on to live one of the most sober lives imaginable.

Like most 19th century Irishmen, Talbot came from a family of hard drinkers. And like most Irishmen of the time, drinking was no big thing.

Neither was school. Talbot dropped out at 12 and went to work for a wine merchant. By the age of 13 he was a full-fledged drunk. His next job was handling the whisky stores at the Port and Docks Board. That, of course, only made drinking matters worse. So did the fact that he and his co-workers liked to hit the pub each and every night.

Talbot became a raging drunk. When he ran out of money for drink, he’d borrow. When he couldn’t borrow, he’d beg credit. And when he couldn’t get credit, he’d steal. One time Talbot even swiped a street musician’s fiddle in order to get drink.

At 28, after 15 years of hard drinking Talbot had had enough. He just couldn’t take it anymore. He was broke. And he was broken. He also was disgusted with himself. So Talbot “took the pledge.”

Back then “taking the pledge” meant renouncing alcohol and joining the Knights of Father Matthew. Father Matthew was a tee-totaling priest and founder of the Cork Total Temperance Society, which by this time had spread all across Ireland. At its peak the Total Temperance Society boasted nearly 3 million sober members. So it’s safe to say the TTS was a lot like A.A.

So was the TTS program. Talbot’s first pledge was for three months. After 90 days, he pledged to stay sober for six months. Talbot’s third pledge was to stay off the sauce for the rest of his life.

That pledge of sobriety lasted over 40 years. Was it always easy? Hardly. In fact there’s evidence that Talbot’s first seven years of sobriety were especially difficult. But he endured. He found strength in prayer, began to attend daily Mass, and read prodigiously. Talbot also scrupulously repaid all his debts, which is another parallel to Alcoholics Anonymous. And when he couldn’t directly repay a debtor (as in the case of the fiddler whose instrument he had stolen), Talbot made amends by giving to the church.

Talbot also made what we in A.A. call living amends. That is, he devoted his life to giving back and living upright. Talbot took the hardest jobs. And he worked harder than anyone else, whether it was carrying hod or laboring in a timber yard. Talbot also became increasingly devout, and tried to model himself on sixth century Irish monks. He ate very little, lived in a small flat and slept on a plank bed with a piece of timber for a pillow. Talbot also rose at 5 a.m. every day so as to attend Mass before work. And he spent most of every evening on his knees.

But is is Talbot’s service rather than his penance which makes him the perfect Patron Saint of Alcoholics. A service that he carried out with unflinching rigor for over four decades. Some might argue that Bill W. should be the Patron Saint of Alcoholics. But if you consider the fact that Talbot’s efforts helped set the stage for A.A., as well as the many miracles that came about as the result of those efforts, it’s clear the duly venerated Irishman was also one helluva Saint.

Note

Matt Talbot died on his way to church on Trinity Sunday. Fifty years later, Pope Paul VI gave him the title venerable. His Liturgical Feast Day is June 19. More information can be found at the Venerable Matt Talbot Resource Center.

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