Priest earns acclaim rescuing alcoholics Recovery center credited with helping thousands

July 05, 1992|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Staff Writer

The Rev. Joseph Martin stood before a group of alcoholics who had just spent a month in recovery at a cost of more than $11,000 each and had just a few words to say: "Remember, if you don't take a drink, you can't get drunk."

Simple advice. But if followed, it could mean a new life for the handful of men and women who were graduating from the month-long program at Father Martin's Ashley, the nationally recognized alcohol and substance abuse treatment center near Havre de Grace.

Father Martin, 67, has built a career offering uncomplicated, heartfelt assistance to victims of addiction. A recovered alcoholic himself and international lecturer on beating chemical abuse, he is convinced that maintaining sobriety must be kept simple if it is to work.

"Remember, we learn to live a day at a time a day at a time. If you do that, good things will happen in your life," he said as last week's graduation ceremony at the non-profit treatment center ended.

Set on 43 well-manicured acres overlooking the Chesapeake Bay, Ashley was opened by Father Martin and co-founder Mae Abraham in 1983.

It has become one of the top substance abuse treatment centers in the country, thanks to Father Martin's knowledge of alcoholism and compassionate method of translating it, says Arthur Calliandro, vice chairman of the Institutes of Religion and Health in New York.

PD The IRH, a pastoral counseling and training organization founded

by Norman Vincent Peale in 1937, chose Father Martin as one of three recipients of the Norman Vincent Peale Award for Positive Thinking. It's just the latest in a long series of honors bestowed on him for his work.

"You taught people the world over that an alcoholic person is not evil, but sick, and deserves our love and care," says a citation read at the awards ceremony in New York last month.

Father Martin personally knows the agony of the illness. He grew up in the Hampden area of Baltimore, the son of a heavy drinker. After graduating from Loyola High School and St. Mary's Seminary, he joined the Sulpician Fathers, who train young men for the priesthood.

It was as a priest that he began to drink.

"I drank from age 24 to 34," he says of his own bout with alcohol. "I was afraid to go near the altar to say Mass six days a week. I did go on Sunday, but shaking all the while."

In 1958, while assigned to the since-closed St. Charles Seminary Catonsville, he was sent into treatment by his superiors. He spent seven months in Lake Orion, Mich., at Guest House, a center founded by writer Austin Ripley. He came home a changed man, never to drink again.

Mr. Ripley, himself a recovered alcoholic, became Father Martin's mentor and idol. To this day Father Martin attributes much of his success in staying sober to Mr. Ripley's wise counseling.

"All of his treatment and that here at Ashley is based on the innate dignity of the human being," says Father Martin, who says he's been sober 34 years now.

Not long after his own recovery, Father Martin began helping others, eventually leaving teaching to go into chemical dependency counseling full-time. He developed a lecture and started delivering it in Maryland state and federal government programs.

"I call it a blackboard talk," he says. "It's about 1 1/2 hours long. There's no music, no dancing. It's just talk."

In 1972 the Navy filmed his lecture and titled it "Chalk Talk on Alcohol." Within months use of the film spread throughout the armed forces. Its widespread success sent his career as an alcoholism counselor into orbit. Before long, he was in demand all over the country dispensing words of wisdom.

His international lecturing has taken him to England, Italy, Turkey, Russia, the Far East and Antarctica.

"I just tell people I'm like horse manure; I'm on the road a lot," he says.

It's that sense of humor that frequently surfaces in talks with patients, too, say those who know him well.

His lectures have been published in a volume, "No Laughing Matter," and "Chalk Talk on Alcohol" has become a classic film in recovery centers, schools and employee assistance programs.

His influence on addicted individuals in the last 20 years seems immeasurable. Ashley alone is credited with the treatment of 5,000 patients and 15,000 family members.

Father Martin has received letters of thanks from thousands, including Betty Ford, who viewed his film while undergoing treatment, and former White House aide Michael Deaver, who attended Ashley and is now on its board of directors.

"He literally saved my life," says Mrs. Abraham, co-founder with Father Martin of Ashley and a former binge drinker. She met him in 1964 at a lecture he gave for the National Council on Alcoholism in Baltimore.

"This man said alcoholics are not bad people. It's a sickness. You don't have to feel any more inferior because you have it than if you had any other disease," she says. "And I believed him."

"My feelings of guilt and remorse left me that night," says Mrs. Abraham, who has been sober for 28 years.

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