Monday, June 7, 2010

The Saint Who Climbed Out of the Bottle

Alcoholism isn't unknown to our family.

My mother was an alcoholic, as well as her sister, my godmother; possibly my grandfather. I was married to a wonderful woman, mother of my children, who died of alcoholism at age 44. Though I was always very aware of the possibility for myself, and a few youthful escapades which caused me to wonder, yet by the grace of God I escaped that particular addiction.

Along with the Catholic Church today, many honor Venerable Matt Talbot (1856–1925) an Irish ascetic, revered by many for his holiness, charity and the disciplining of the flesh. An unskilled laborer, Talbot lived alone for most of his life. His life would have gone unnoticed were it not for the penitential cords and chains discovered on his body when he died suddenly on a Dublin street, in 1925.

Talbot was the second oldest of twelve children born to Charles and Elizabeth Talbot, a poor family in the North Strand area of Dublin, Ireland. His father was a heavy drinker, as were most of his brothers later. At the age of 12 Matt obtained his first job in a wine-bottling store, very soon began sampling their wares, and coming home drunk. His drinking continued as he worked in whiskey stores, and soon he was well on the way to being a confirmed alcoholic. He frequented pubs in the city with his brothers and friends, spending most or all of his wages and running up debts. On one occasion, he stole a fiddle from a street entertainer, selling it to buy drink.

One evening in 1884, at age 28, Talbot, penniless and out of credit, waited outside a pub in hopes that somebody would invite him in for a drink. After friends passed him by, disregarding him, he went home, desperate and  disgusted with himself.  He told his mother that he planned  to "take the pledge", and went to Holy Cross College, Clonliffe, where a priest befriended him and before whom Talbot made a pledge not to drink for three months. At the end of that time, he renewed his resolve for another six months, then continued renewing it for longer periods, until finally he took the pledge for life.

After his 16 years of drunkenness, Talbot maintained sobriety for the following 40 years of his life. He found strength in prayer, began to attend daily Mass and to read religious material. He repaid his outstanding debts scrupulously, though his search for the fiddler whose instrument he had stolen came to no avail. So he gave the money to the parish church to have Mass offered for the man. It is said that Matt Talbot never carried any money with him, so as not to be tempted to break his resolve.

Talbot was a hard worker even when his alcoholism was at its worst. When he joined a building contracting firm as a hod-carrier, his work-rate was such that he was put first on the line of hodmen to set the pace. He later worked at the most menial and difficult jobs in a timber yard. He treated his bosses respectfully and on occasion stood up for fellow-workers. In 1911 Talbot joined the builder's laborers branch of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. Talbot joined his co-workers during the Dublin Lockout of 1913, when sympathy strikes were called throughout the city. At first Talbot refused the strike pay, feeling that he hadn't earned it. Later he accepted it but  shared it among the other strikers. 

Matt Talbot became increasingly devout from the time he gave up drinking. He was guided for most of his life by The Rev. Michael Hickey, D.D., Professor of Philosophy at Clonliffe College. Under Hickey's guidance Talbot expanded his reading. Dr. Hickey also gave him a chain to wear, as a form of penance. In 1890, Matt became a Third Order Franciscan, and was a member of several other associations and sodalities. Although poor himself, Talbot was generous in giving to his neighbors and co-workers, to charitable institutions and to the Church. He ate very little. After his mother's death in 1915 he lived in a small flat with sparse furniture. He slept on a plank bed with a piece of timber for a pillow. Rising at 5:00 AM each day, he attended Mass before work. In his spare time at work, he made time to pray quietly. He spent time every evening, praying on his knees. 

As Matt was on his way to Mass on Sunday, June 7, 1925, he collapsed and died of heart failure. Nobody at the scene was able to identify him. His body was taken to Jervis Street Hospital, where he was undressed, revealing the austere heavy chain which he had wound around his waist, with more ropes on an arm and leg. The wearing of such penitential items was obviously less unusual in the 1920s than it is in the 21st century. Nevertheless, Talbot's story quickly filtered through the community and there were many spectators at his funeral when he was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery on June 11, 1925.

Matt Talbot quickly became an icon for Ireland's temperance movement, the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association, and his story soon became known to the large Irish emigré communities.The Apostolic Process toward sainthood began in 1947 with the official sworn testimony at the Vatican. On October 2, 1975, Pope Paul VI declared him to be "Venerable", the first step on the road to canonization, and a process requiring evidence of a physical miracle.
Talbot's remains were removed from Glasnevin Cemetery to Our Lady of Lourdes Church on Seán McDermott Street, Dublin, in 1972. 

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