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Father Edward Dowling, S.J.

  • HEATHER KING

His funeral was packed.  From society matrons in mink coats to Skid Row drunks, people came from around the country to pay homage.


dowlling1Father Edward Dowling (1898-1960), the oldest of five born to a devout Irish Catholic family from Saint Louis, became a beloved Jesuit priest.  Though not himself an alcoholic, he was a close friend and spiritual advisor to Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

An avid baseball player and newspaper reporter, Father Dowling entered the Jesuit seminary at Florissant, Missouri, in 1919.  While there, he was diagnosed with the arthritis from which he would suffer crippling pain for the remainder of his life. 

Starting in 1929, he studied theology at Saint Mary's College in Kansas.  Upon being ordained in 1931, he became associate editor at The Queen's Work, the magazine of the Jesuit-sponsored Sodalities of Our Lady in Saint Louis — a post he held until his death. 

Father Dowling's religious leanings can be discerned from a widely-circulated quote from a piece in the Chicago Daily News dated July 28, 1941: "The two greatest obstacles to democracy in the United States are, first, the widespread delusion among the poor that we have a democracy, and second, the chronic terror among the rich, lest we get it." 

He embraced the cross of daily life with good cheer, a kind word, a sense of humor.  He once took to using a cap gun to summon his secretary when his desk buzzer was broken.  He had a feel for all of humanity.  In his work to honor the black community, he used his genealogical skills to locate the previously unmarked grave of Dred Scott.

When a drinking friend from Chicago lost his wife, Father Dowling took him to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, in those days a fledgling organization.  Noting the similarity of AA principles — surrender to a Higher Power, rigorous honesty, a daily examination of conscience to Ignatian spirituality, he applied them to the sacrament of marriage and founded what would come to be known as Cana Conferences.  His tone was matter-of-fact and friendly.  He helped found Recovery Inc. for neurotics.  He applied the AA principles to his own compulsive tendencies to overeat and smoke. 

He traveled exhaustively.  In 1940, he arrived unannounced at Bill Wilson's walk-up flat in New York.  The maintenance man who let him in took him for a bum.  He climbed the stairs to the second floor in spite of the chronic pain in his leg, rather than make Wilson come down to him. 

The two became devoted, life-long friends, with Father Dowling in the role of spiritual advisor.  "Father Ed, an early and wonderful friend of AA, died as this last message went to press," Wilson wrote in the spring of 1960.  "He was the greatest and most gentle soul to walk this planet.  I was closer to him than to any other human being on earth."

He was an old-school priest, made of the kind of fine cloth that prefers to disguise itself as sacking.  His funeral was packed.  From society matrons in mink coats to Skid Row drunks, people came from around the country to pay homage. 

"I really haven't done anything," Father Dowling once said.  "It's really simple.  I just happened to be around."

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Acknowledgement

king Heather King. "Father Edward Dowling, S.J." Magnificat (November, 2016).

Image: A.A. General Service Office Archives

Reprinted with permission from Magnificat.

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The Author

king king1 Heather King is a sober alcoholic, an ex-lawyer, a Catholic convert, and a full-time writer. She is the author of: Parched, Redeemed: Stumbling Toward God, Marginal Sanity, and the Peace That Passes All Understanding, Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Poor Baby, Stripped, Holy Days and Gospel Reflectionsand Stumble: Virtue, Vice, and the Space Between. She lives in Los Angeles. Visit her website here

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