Dawn Eden Goldstein’s ‘Father Ed’ lifts up the saint who befriended Bill W and helped to spread the good news about Alcoholics Anonymous

“Perhaps you believe, as I do, that Father Edward Dowling, SJ, was a man of such prophetic wisdom, heroic virtue, and personal holiness that he deserves to be named a saint of the Church.”
from Dawn Eden Goldstein’s Postscript to her biography Father Ed


Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

As a lifelong journalist myself, I’m naturally drawn to a biography that suggests a journalist’s vocation attuned him to become a living saint. Dawn Eden Goldstein argues such a cause in her new biography of Father Ed Dowling, the reporter-turned-Jesuit who befriended Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill W. The holy virtues shared by “Father Ed” made such an impact in so many lives that Goldstein hopes to see a grassroots cause for his canonization emerge—and she even explains to readers how they can help, at the end of her book.

In our interview, I asked Goldstein to concisely summarize this case she makes in the 400 pages of Father Ed: The Story of Bill W.’s Spiritual Sponsor.

She boiled it down to three sentences: “I believe Father Ed’s cause should be opened because he was prophetic in terms of his ministry to wounded people in many ways, particularly in the way he spiritually accompanied Bill Wilson and many other people from 12-step programs. He gave his life for others. He worked so hard at helping people for so many years—even though he had this painful, severe case of ankylosing spondylitis—that he shortened his life.”

As Goldstein explains in her book, this painful condition emerged in his early 20s, when he was a successful journalist pursuing Jesuit studies. Over the decades, the condition caused sometimes excruciating back pain and difficulty standing and walking—to the point that his slouching posture may have contributed to people mistaking him for a street person.

“I think the main reasons Father Ed was frequently mistaken for a street person were that, first, due to his illness, he had difficulty combing his hair properly and otherwise straightening out his appearance,” Goldstein said. “Second, he took his vow of poverty seriously, so his Jesuit habit, clothing, hat and shoes typically had holes.”

The first time Father Ed went to meet Bill W in New York City, he was mistaken for “a bum” by a friend of Bill’s who first spotted him. The friend was unsure whether to bring him into Bill’s room, but Bill always was welcoming. So, Father Ed slowly shuffled up a flight of stairs to Bill’s room.

“Bill Wilson said that when he first met Father Ed, the Jesuit’s bedraggled and misshapen hat—probably the beret he wore when he traveled—looked like a cabbage leaf,” Goldstein said.

Eventually, Bill realized Father Ed was a priest as Father Ed took off his overcoat and Bill clearly saw his priest’s collar underneath. The meeting turned out to be a spiritual turning point in both of their lives. That dramatic scene is reenacted by actors in the widely praised 2012 documentary film, Bill W.

A Prophet View of Vocations

Father Ed was not an alcoholic, but his own chronic pain was part of what drove him to help other suffering men and women. In Catholic terms, Father Ed found that his “vocation” to the priesthood included a vision of how much troubled lay people need help and, in turn, can provide help to each other.

Father Ed was convinced that the spiritual callings of lay people are as valuable as any formal vocation to sacred orders—and he began preaching this message even before he discovered Alcoholics Anonymous and met Bill W. While that concept of a powerful spiritual calling within every life is common today, that truth was not fully embraced by the worldwide Catholic church until the Second Vatican Council and the declaration known as Lumen gentium, often translated as “Light of the World.”

In our interview, Goldstein said, “I’m grateful that you’re going to tell your readers about what I think is this really central point in the book: Years before the Second Vatican Council, Father Ed recognized, wrote, spoke and taught about the movement of the Holy Spirit in the laity and even the movement of the Holy Spirit among non-Catholics. He saw that clearly years before Lumen gentium.

So, why don’t more people know about Father Ed?

As I began to read Goldstein’s biography in preparation for our interview—reading all of this as a journalist who has covered religious diversity since the 1970s—I was astonished that I was not already familiar with Father Ed. Now, I realize that this lack of awareness is a result of Father Ed’s own selflessness. Bill W himself frequently complained about the way that his supposedly “anonymous” life had become a global icon for the 12-step movement.

For many reasons, Father Ed also became famous, especially among the vast communities of people he assisted. Not only did he help to shape and spread the message of Alcoholics Anonymous, but he also founded a movement of “cana conferences” to help married couples that continues today in various forms—and he was a major supporter of what is today known as Recovery International, founded by psychiatrist Abraham Low.

However, throughout all of this work, Father Ed spent little time in shaping his own public image. He certainly wrote and spoke and taught widely, but his focus always was on the movements he was shaping. While admirable during his lifetime, that led to challenges in tracking down an accurate accounting of his life, Goldstein found.

Dawn Eden Goldstein. Photo by Jay Mallin (NOTE TO READERS: If you plan to discuss ‘Father Ed’ in your small group or congregation and you are sending out your own media about this book, you can use this author photo via Wikimedia Commons.)

Fortunately for Father Ed’s legacy, she was equal to the task. Among journalists, Goldstein is so well known for her long career that her Wikipedia page, at this moment, ironically is longer than Father Ed’s. She also has a very active “Dawn Patrol” website where readers can find out more about her work and can contact her if they want to invite her to speak about this new book.

As a Catholic scholar herself, now, Goldstein understands the significance of this new biography. The idea of pursuing canonization for Father Ed would be impossible without a thoroughly researched biography like this one. Factual errors about Father Ed’s life abound, starting with the dramatic reenactment of his meeting with Bill W in the 2012 documentary. If you are interested in those differences, then get a copy of Goldstein’s book and watch the movie. You’ll see key details missed by the filmmakers.

Overall, Goldstein praises the film and recommends it to viewers. She even excuses the small mistakes the filmmakers made because it has been difficult to track down the precise facts about Father Ed’s life. That includes his Wikipedia page that is woefully flawed as of April 2023. To date, there are three major errors in two of the crucial sentences on that Wikipedia page:

During the early years of Alcoholics Anonymous, a friend of Dowling’s from Chicago developed a drinking problem after losing his wife, and in 1940, Dowling took him to an AA meeting. There, he noticed the similarities between the program’s twelve-step program and the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola.

What are the errors?

First, Dowling’s friend did not lose his wife—she was a heroic mainstay in his life—and his “drinking problem” was alcoholism that was common among newspapermen in that era. The second error: It was this friend who invited Dowling to an AA meeting. Third, Dowling did not notice the similarities between the 12 steps and Ignatian spirituality until another priest pointed this out to him, later. Then, the connections seemed obvious to him.

And there’s more! Although it is not exactly an “error” in Father Ed’s Wikipedia page, we also now know that this “friend” was the famous Chicago reporter Edwin A. Lahey. And even though Lahey’s involvement with Father Ed and AA was a crucial part of Lahey’s life, that is barely mentioned on his Wikipedia page.

“You can see why so it was so important for me to fully research Father Ed’s life and then tell his story really for the first time in such a full way,” Goldstein said in our interview. “Now, I’m hoping Wikipedia editors will begin correcting the mistakes.”

Those errors are not minor details.

“Those errors really do need to be fixed,” Goldstein said. For example, there’s a major difference between Father Ed as a helpful priest directing a lay person to attend an AA meeting—and a lay person surprising Father Ed with an invitation to accompany him to a meeting. “It’s important to understand that a lay person told Father Ed about AA because this shows us how, throughout Father Ed’s life, he understood the value of being directed by lay people. That’s not to say he ever forfeited his role as a spiritual leader, teacher, confessor and preacher. But Father Ed also recognized the movement of the Holy Spirit in the laity to the point that lay people also could lead him and could lead the church in important ways.”

The vocational value of a good journalist

The fascinating story behind Father Ed is packed with journalists from Father Ed himself and his friend Edwin Lahey to Dawn Eden Goldstein herself—and yet there’s even more!

How did Alcoholics Anonymous even succeed in the first place?

Back in 2010, I wrote a 40-day series of columns from towns across America as I traveled in a van with my son Benjamin in search of spiritual landmarks. Of course, that daily series had to include a visit to Bill W’s birthplace and gravesite in East Dorset, Vermont. One of the mentors who helped to shape the founding of our publishing house in 2007 was the now-legendary religion journalist and scholar Phyllis Tickle, who died in 2015. In her talks about the impact of faith on contemporary life, Phyllis always pointed to the founding of AA as one of the greatest milestones in America’s religious history, because it was a lay-led spiritual movement unlike anything Americans had seen. That’s the same basic point Goldstein makes in her book. As we set out on the road in 2010, Phyllis said, “You know where you need to wind up in this grand tour you’re taking? You need to end up in East Dorset, Vermont, at Bill W.’s gravestone.”

And, as always, Phyllis was right.

The column my son and I filed in 2010 became the most widely shared in our entire series, which was co-published by The Detroit Free Press and the Knight-Ridder wire nationwide. We headlined the story, Folks so tough they don’t need a last name, and we also placed a copy of the story in this ReadTheSpirit magazine.

During our visit to East Dorset, we were allowed to look through archival boxes packed with records of the agonizing struggles the AA founders faced. What we did not appreciate during our visit was an archived copy of the March 1, 1941, Saturday Evening Post.

In those archival boxes, we saw that cover with its Normal Rockwell painting of a girl in a plaid skirt—and a small note in the lower right corner that said: “ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS, By JACK ALEXANDER.” We thought it was just one of many media mentions of AA and did not include that detail it in our short column about Bill W. As it turns out, that article was The Media Milestone that “took A.A. out of the pioneering stage and made it a movement,” according to Bill W.

What does all this have to do with Father Ed and his journalistic connections?

Plenty! Even the official AA history of that article, as of this date, misses the crucial role Father Ed played in making that story possible. A dramatic turning point in Jack Alexander’s own understanding of AA was due to Father Ed’s behind-the-scenes shepherding of the movement and his own efforts to foster the AA meetings in St. Louis.

“Jack was assigned this AA article by his editor and he was skeptical,” Goldstein said in our interview. “At first, he thought this was a hoax.” If you want to read more about what happened when this very skeptical journalist finally reached St. Louis and met other journalists in the St. Louis AA meeting—get yourself a copy of Goldstein’s book. It’s a dramatic part of the story.

Is there a pathway toward canonization for Father Ed?

The first thing non-Catholics need to understand about saints canonized by the Catholic church is that the Vatican is not “making saints.” Canonization is a process the Vatican has evolved over many centuries to investigate men and women who have died and yet are inspiring the faithful in various parts of the world. Are these figures reliable spiritual models? Can they be officially recommended as “saints” to admire? Are their examples truly worthwhile? Once lay people have begun to show spiritual interest in such a holy person, the canonization process is a years-long investigation to answer such questions so the church can officially recommend the “saint.”

“Canonization is the only truly democratic process in the Catholic church because no one becomes a saint unless there is a popular devotion,” Goldstein said in our interview.

I said, “In other words, this won’t happen unless people today actually are looking to Father Ed for inspiration and are interested in letting others know about him. His cause can only get started if there is a grassroots movement among the laity, right?”

“Right,” she said. “The Latin term the church uses is ‘cultus,’ which simply refers to this kind of popular devotion. That means Father Ed’s cause really will be up to lay people, which is just how Father Ed would have wanted it.”

“But what else is needed?” I asked.

“Careful research and that’s why I’ve spent so much time on this book,” she said.

“And beyond that,” I said, “I know from years of reporting on canonizations myself, there has to be a particular pathway with milestones along that way, right?”

“Well, I’m glad you’re asking about this, because it’s important to know that Pope Francis has opened up a new pathway to canonization that is perfect for Father Ed. This new pathway is for holy people who, although they did not die as martyrs, they made a decision to help other people in a way that shortened their own life. Father Ed was told from almost the beginning of his priesthood that, if he wanted to have a normal-length life, he needed to limit himself because of his ankylosing spondylitis. Those effects got worse because he never slowed down. He spent himself physically in helping others and that’s the description of this new pathway.”

“That would be historic if his cause did follow this new route,” I said. “But the core issues in a cause for canonization continue to rest on proof of heroic or exceptional holiness, right?”

“Yes,” Goldstein said. “During his life, Father Ed already had a reputation for holiness among Catholics and also among non-Catholics. Having researched his life, I know that his holiness is not in question—and moreover I can say: He is a model for priestly asceticism for accepting his limitations and accepting them as a priestly sacrifice.”

She paused a moment, then added, “And, these days in the church? These days, we need examples of priestly holiness like Father Ed.”


Care to read more?

ORDER YOUR COPY of Father Ed: The Story of Bill W.’s Spiritual Sponsor now. By the very nature of Goldstein’s research and purpose, this already is a spiritual classic—a milestone publication for those who care about the worldwide 12-step movement. One sign of this book’s significance is that Father Ed just won a 2023 Christopher Award.

VISIT DAWN’S WEBSITE to learn more about her work. In particular, don’t miss her page about public appearances, which includes a note at the bottom about how to invite Goldstein to speak in the future.

FINALLY, DO A GOOD DEED. If you appreciate Goldstein’s message, then you know that it’s a mitzvah to spread word of this remarkable man’s legacy. Please do so by using the social-media buttons below to share this story with friends.

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