A Catholic Nun’s Devotion to the Sacred Heart Leaves a Permanent Mark on Recovery Programs

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I had just received my 16-year medallion and black key tag from my NA (Narcotics Anonymous) family, when a brother priest shared that he was reading Sister Ignatia: Angel of Alcoholics Anonymous by Mary Darrah. The medallion and key tag are given to members to celebrate their extended period of sobriety (editor’s note: sometimes it’s a coin or token in other recovery programs). When I heard about this book, I asked myself, “Who is this nun and what is she all about?” So I ordered a copy of the book and read it overnight (well, since I’m in a program that emphasizes the importance of honesty, I should say I read it over several nights). What I discovered in reading about Sr. Ignatia’s journey was that there is a connection between the Sacred Heart badge and the medallion and key tag I had just received. Suddenly, these things took on a deeper meaning.

In visiting patients who were struggling with drug and alcohol addictions in the hospital she ministered at, she would provide them with two grace-filled gifts. In the book, Darrah writes:

“Frighteningly new to him were self-knowledge and sobriety. With the future placed securely in a Higher Power’s hands and the present shared with a sponsor, Ignatia repeated her cautions…remind[ing] her listener to bear in mind that his sobriety was a treasure… She presented him with a personalized copy of the The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis…[and] as a parting gift, Sr. awarded a small religious token of a Sacred Heart badge.”

I marked these pages in my book, returning to them often. God had revealed to me the underlying influence of the work of His Church in the gift of being clean: within the gifts our recovery family gives us in the form of coins, medallions, or tokens in our recovery journey.

For those who have been in sobriety for a while, you probably know the feeling in those initial days when you’re fluctuating between throwing up and jumping out of your skin for joy at receiving a 30-, 60-, or 90-day key tag or token. Over the years, while it doesn’t get completely stale, you do get used to it. After you’ve been doing it for 6,000 days or more, one day at a time, the newness can wear off.

If I had known of the Catholic roots underlying the handing out of tokens, medallions, and key tags in my early days of recovery I would have been blabbing about it in my recovery meetings, needlessly trying to boost my need to connect what I’m doing there with my Catholic faith. However, this would have only been a sign of my pride and my lack of humility…

But turning back to the book about Sr. Ignatia, I read something else that really struck me.

“Acceptance of the small badge sealed an agreement…for it signaled a promise made by the patient; he agreed to return the badge to Sr. personally if he ever decided that abstinence was not for him.”  

I laughed when I read that. That small, tough nun sure knew how to make faith real and practical. Reading that many of her patients kept that small badge and wouldn’t dare come back to Sr. Ignatia to hand it back to her kept many of them sober. This was the impetus for what recovery programs now offer in the form of the keytag, coin, token, or medallion. I couldn’t help but be grateful for the “symbol of trust” that Sr. Ignatia put into the hands of those learning a new way to live.

When I witnessed newcomers receiving a hug and a 30- and 60-day key tag, my heart welled up in gratitude that the “Sacred Heart badge” had been offered in a hidden and mysterious way to those trying to live life one day at a time. We have this wonderful tradition because a Catholic nun was willing to believe in people like us when we couldn’t believing in ourselves.

Sr. Ignatia isn’t a declared “saint” of the Catholic Church, but maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be. These 12-step programs of anonymity are never lost on God who, when He sees a son or daughter of His receive a key tag, token, or medallion, knows that it was because Sr. Ignatia believed in the power of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Each of these “miracles” are accounted for in that place mentioned in the Eucharistic prayer, where I choke up and pause every time I say it at Mass: “saints among the saints in the halls of heaven.”

Thank you, Sacred Heart of Jesus. Thank you, Sr. Ignatia. And thank you, everyone in my recovery family.


Fr. “J” is a Catholic priest and member of Narcotics Anonymous.