Father Martin Story

Front-Page Story

June 29, 2008

ęBaltimore Sun.

His comeback was the worst-kept secret at Ashley.

After a six-month absence, an ailing Father Joseph Martin returned recently to what has been called the Betty Ford Clinic of the East Coast - Father Martin's Ashley. Arriving in his wheelchair, he waited for the applause and standing ovation to yield before speaking to 80 patients at the addiction treatment center he co-founded near Havre de Grace.

One more time, the 83-year-old priest spoke of the symptoms of sobriety - the ways patients know they are getting better. Recognizing that everyone is in pain. The return of one's self-esteem and humanity. No more living a lie.  Father Martin spoke of his own drinking, his own "island of pain and self-hatred." He thanked everyone for their prayers. "I'm going to go home shortly now. That took all the steam out of me."

This has been a milestone year for Joseph Martin. Together with his partner, Mae Abraham, they watch over the addiction center they opened 25 years ago this spring.

More than 30,000 people have been treated there, including supermodel Niki Taylor, pro football player Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson, the late Michael Kennedy, the son of Robert F. Kennedy, and the late former White House aide Michael Deaver. Lynda Carter Altman, TV's former Wonder Woman and an Ashley alum herself, performed before 540 guests who paid $250 a seat to attend a silver anniversary gala last month.

Father Martin marked his own milestone this month: It was 50 years ago that the young Baltimore priest entered treatment. He has congestive heart failure now and endures dialysis three times weekly. His blood pressure sinks dangerously low. Takes a week of energy to decide to belch, as Father Martin says. Public appearances are seldom.

"I pray for him every day," says Mary Royals, 49, of Bethesda. "He has an immense amount of compassion because he is one of us. He gave people back their lives."

In 2003, Royals, once a serious binge drinker, spent a month at Ashley, which is about the prettiest place for the ugly business of getting clean.  Bald eagles, wild turkeys and osprey inhabit the grounds of the former estate of Sen. Millard Tydings of Maryland. While there's nothing idyllic about detoxification, a patient's road to recovery is paved with creature comforts at Ashley.

"At Ashley, I found people who had been in situations similar to mine. The disease had no prejudices. It is a great equalizer, whether you are in the public eye or not," Deaver wrote in his book, Behind the Scenes.

For $20,800 for 28 days, patients undergo a regiment of instruction, therapy, fellowship and something about having to get up at 6 in the morning. "This campus is routinely inspected by detection canines," says a sign in the lobby of the nonprofit. The only permitted "contraband" is candy. A media blackout is imposed; no cell phones, no BlackBerries, no TV - except during Super Bowls and World Series. Sixty percent of the patients are men, after all.

Until a few years ago, Father Martin regularly visited and welcomed patients with his trademark: "The nightmare is over." He held court afternoons in the sunny dining room, as patients gathered around.

To know Father Martin is to know his penguin joke: A police officer spots a drunk walking down the street with a penguin. Tells the man to take the penguin to the zoo where he belongs. The next day, the officer sees the same drunk walking the same penguin. Thought I told you to take him to the zoo.  "I did," the drunk said. "He loved it. Today, we're going to the library."

The joke, emblematic of Father Martin's disarming approach to addiction, is immortalized in Ashley's chapel, where a 1-inch figure of a penguin was inserted in one of the stained-glass panels. The penguin is part of a tour of Ashley, as are the hundreds of nametags stuck on the ceiling of a waterfront gazebo by patients on their last day at the facility. Along the fence line above the Chesapeake Bay, markers still remain for Molly and Bonnie, Father Martin's Labs that once escorted patients on walks and chronically retrieved balls.

Adorning the walls of Ashley's rooms, portraits of Father Martin and Mae Abraham hang inseparably. Mae still speaks there every month, while Father Martin has stayed home. He watches the news, waits for her return, and steels himself against more dialysis.

"I live tired," he says.

But he's not alone.

At the Abraham home At Mae Abraham's Havre de Grace home in early June, no one is enjoying the pool - too hot for that. Her manicured gardens feature plants just high enough, as she points out, to avoid the urinary wrath of the Labradors, which her 52-year-old son, Alex, field trains. The home was built out in the back to make a bedroom for Father Martin. A crucifix hangs over his crisply made bed, where a stuffed penguin hogs a pillow.

In the family room, Father Martin sits in what must be his favorite chair. He's watching Fox News. I'm probably a McCain man, he says. Mae sits behind him on the couch and consults the man's biography, One Step Closer: The Life and Work of Father Joseph C. Martin. She knows their narrative by heart but the dates get fuzzy. In fact, it was 1958 when Father Martin was admitted to a treatment center. Ordained a decade earlier, he had discovered his taste for alcohol that same year during a Thanksgiving dinner with fellow priests.

"There are people who have to acquire a taste for gin, but I didn't - I loved it immediately. I had two or three doubles that day," he said in his biography. His drinking escalated. "It never occurred to me that perhaps there was something odd about a priest walking toward a garbage dump in the middle of the afternoon carrying two suitcases filled with clanking bottles."

It occurred to his superiors, who noticed Father Martin's careless teaching habits and troubling behavior. In 1956, he was admitted to a psychiatric ward of a California hospital. No one suspected alcoholism, so when Father Martin left the hospital appearing healthier and happy, he also returned to his double martinis and drinking shots of vodka from bottles he kept in his bathroom. By 1958, Joe Martin could no longer keep his drinking and behavior under control, much less a secret. The Archdiocese of Baltimore ordered him into treatment at Guest House, a Michigan treatment center for clergy.

There, he was exposed to the tenants of Bill Wilson's Alcoholics Anonymous program. Wilson, a Wall Street businessman ruined by drink, had developed a 12-step, faith-based program that treated alcoholism as a disease and stressed staying sober and helping others achieve sobriety. Father Martin saved his notes from the lectures and conversations during his time at Guest House. He also got sober.

In the 1960s, Father Martin distilled Wilson's 12 steps into literally a blackboard talk. He made the rounds of AA meetings with his direct, self-referencing lectures on addiction. The U.S. armed services, which had begun mandatory addiction training for servicemen, used Martin's 90-minute Chalk Talk on Alcohol, as did private businesses and rehab centers. Poorly lit and single-angled, the training films featured one bespectacled priest and one chalk board. "No singing or dancing," as the host says. (The films have gained a new audience on YouTube.)

We alcoholics drink because we can't NOT drink.

I must not make myself a part of the destruction of someone I love.

Drug your conscience and see where your behavior goes.

What are you worth?

But why did he drink?

"Oh, a thousand reasons," Father Martin says. "The point is I crossed the line until I could not NOT drink."

Growing up in a Hampden rowhouse, the seven Martin children were exposed to drinking. Father Martin's 81-year-old brother, Edward Martin, says their father drank on Friday, payday. The rest of the week, James Martin, a machinist by trade, was fine, but Friday nights were not pleasant. Three of the four boys developed drinking problems.

"They say children of an alcoholic get used to the idea of drinking," says Edward Martin, who lives in Georgia. He was spared the attraction. "I never had the money to buy the stuff."

His older brother, Joseph, was clearly the popular one, winner of oratory contests at Loyola High School, the gift of gab. He grew up to be a devoted and enormously generous priest - with a quirk to his personality, his only living brother says. In a crowd, Joseph dominated the conversation with his humor, "as if he felt inadequate to socially bond with people or be comfortable in their presence unless he was entertaining them. He doesn't converse; he gives a humorous lecture."

In 1964, Father Martin crossed paths with Lora Mae Abraham, a mother and housewife from Havre de Grace. Her drinking was out of control and threatened to upend her marriage to Tommy Abraham, the owner of a Greek restaurant in Aberdeen. Days after a lost weekend at Rehoboth Beach, Del., Abraham agreed to attend a lecture at the Johns Hopkins University.  Former Iowa Gov. Harold Hughes was to talk about his alcoholism.  Filling in for the governor, however, was a Catholic priest from Baltimore. Mae looked for the exit.

Hello, I'm Joe Martin, and I'm an alcoholic. ...

Then, the Catholic priest told her, a Southern Baptist, that she wasn't to blame for her drinking. That she wasn't evil.

"He removed the shame from me," she says. "It changed my life forever on."

A lifelong friendship and partnership were born. Mae took everyone she knew with a drinking problem to hear Father Martin's chalk talks. But despite his sobriety and popularity, he was suffering another crisis by the end of the 1960s.

Assigned to St. Mary's Seminary on Paca Street, Father Martin no longer had any assignments or classes, nothing to do anymore. He felt useless. He stayed in his darkened bedroom and became increasingly reclusive and depressed. He turned to Mae. "I'm 45 years old, and all I have to show for my life is the blackboard talk," he told her on the phone in 1970.

They had all become close friends - Father Martin, Mae, her son, Alex, then 14, and Tommy - Father Martin especially liked the babaghanouj Tommy made at his restaurant. So, it wasn't unusual when Tommy and Mae asked Father Martin if he would like to come out to their home in the country and spend a few days resting.

That was 38 years ago.

"He's the man who came to dinner, and he's still eating," she says.

He moved in with his German shepherd, Casey. Mae and the dog did not get along, so she sent both dog and priest to canine-training class. That got Father Martin driving and out of the house again. Next, her house guest needed, well, a job. Father Martin went to work for the state of Maryland's new Division of Alcoholism Control. Mae suggested that he also travel the country to give his chalk talks. They started their own production company, Kelly Productions, which offered nearly 40 Father Martin film titles. (In 2007, Mae and Father Martin sold the rights to his books and films.)

In 1978, Mae suggested they open a treatment center.

"You're going to die, and everything you have done will die with you," she told him.

After an initial $1 million grant, it would take another seven years to raise enough money to open Ashley - named for Mae's father, the Rev. Arthur Ashley. In 1983, the 22-bed facility opened on Oakington Farm, the former estate of Millard Tydings, a native son of Havre de Grace and U.S. senator from Maryland. Six staff members hovered and fussed over all five patients.


Expenses were paid from the film profits. And over much time, Ashley built a national reputation as it grew donation by donation, building by building.

Father Martin became a celebrity - his picture was taken with former first ladies Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan. In 1993, he was invited to the Vatican.  Father Martin, then 65, helped celebrate Mass with Pope John Paul II. "The most profound experience of my life," he says.

Before he left, the priest from Harford County handed the pontiff a brochure from Ashley.

Retirement years In retirement, Mae Abraham has become Father Martin's caretaker. On days when his blood pressure plummets, she props his feet up and feeds him broth and monitors his numbers. In January, he was near death in an area hospital. Last rites were given. Mae rushed to the hospital and insisted he be placed on a respirator. There had been confusion about his living will, she said.

One recent afternoon, Mae, who has been sober 45 years, steps outside to give a tour of her garden, but needs to get back inside. She doesn't like to leave Father alone (she has never called him Joseph). At night, her son, Alex, helps Father Martin into bed and wonders if he'll still be with them in the morning. You just don't know on those dialysis days, Mae says.

"He's afraid of leaving this place," she says. "But I told him I made him a promise a long time ago. As long as I'm alive, you'll be here."

In the family room, Father Martin turns the sound down to Fox News. As a Sun photographer takes pictures, he whispers, "You can use some of these pictures to keep the mice out of the basement." One of the black Labs lopes over with a toy in his mouth. Just like the Labs years ago at Ashley.

"Like everything, I miss it."

No blackboard lecture, just a tired and sick man whose simple and smart words helped a lot of sick people while giving him something very much to do with his life.

"Mae and I know what we've done. We stand before God with it," says Joseph Martin of Father Martin's Ashley.

"And if they mess it up and don't keep our philosophy," Mae Abraham adds, "we'll come back and haunt the hell out of them."

They aren't kidding.


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