Dot playwright seeks to right a wrong: O’Neill’s latest subject was recovery pioneer

Catherine O'Neill

Savin Hill’s Catherine O’Neill, a Dorchester native who has become a well-regarded playwright over the last several years, turns to one of the less-heralded founders of the American recovery movement for her next play, which opens in Boston’s South End next month.

Sister Anonymous, which details the life and work of Sister Mary Ignatia Gavin— considered one of the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)— will be staged from March 3 to 18 at the Boston Center for the Arts.

Sister Ignatia, who died in 1966, was the daughter of Irish immigrants who joined the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine as a young woman. Early in her career, she grasped that alcoholism was not a moral failing, but a disease. She routinely snuck alcoholics into hospital emergency rooms—under the guise of gastritis—in order to administer treatment.

It is, however, the nun’s later collaboration with better-known Bill Wilson and Dr. Robert Smith on the formation of AA that originally drew O’Neill to the story.

“Anyone who’s been through detox and AA stands on her shoulders,” said O’Neill. Both Dr. Smith and Wilson adored Sister I, O’Neill noted, and both men attributed much of the rehabilitation program’s formation to her. But society failed to cement the nun’s place in history.

“Sister I deserves recognition for her story, and that’s why I told it,” said O’Neill, who spent nearly three years researching her life. “I headed out to Cleveland, to Akron, where Sister Ignatia worked. I walked around, saw where she lived, interviewed people who knew of her, dug into her humanness.”

O’Neill said that the play is her best and most important work to date.

The writer has had a fascinating journey of her own. Hailing from a large and well-known Lower Mills clan, O’Neill has been a mainstay in Boston’s political scene— working frequently as a campaign manager and consultant. She spent three years working as Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s liaison to Dorchester’s district three in the 1990s.

After she was laid off from a real estate job in 2009, O’Neill decided to fulfill a desire that had burned in her since she was a young girl—when she would write poetry in secret. She elected to pursue a Master’s in Fine Arts at Lesley University. She graduated in 2011 and has since written and produced five full-length plays, including The Fence and Murph.

O’Neill has leaned on the diversity of thought and breadth of insight that allows her to resonate so much at the keyboard.

“I have met with kings, and I’ve hung out with the homeless. I bring all of that to my work,” she said.

Her plays, which have mostly been staged in Boston’s theatres and in public venues, have drawn critical acclaim for O’Neill.

“My words have been spoken on the Boston Common. I mean, for someone who has denied herself this passion her whole life, it’s a big hit for me,” she said.

“Catherine is a very generous playwright,” said Kelly Smith, 27, the director of Sister Anonymous. “She has been very supportive, allowing the team to collaborate and tell the story in the clearest and most beautiful way.”

Smith sees Sister Anonymous as an exciting challenge.

“Catherine has been persistent about making this the best script possible. Her wealth of knowledge is critical in our retelling of this real life story,” said Smith.

O’Neill views Sister Anonymous as a distinctly feminist piece of art.

“It’s a play about a woman, written by a woman, directed, staged, and starring women. There are men in the play, but it’s focused on the story of women,” she said.

The play’s appeal, she thinks, will resonate far beyond her hometown. “Well, I think it can be taken to Akron and Cleveland, for starters,” O’Neill said.

Sister Anonymous will run from March 3-18 at the Standford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts. Tickets are $30 and can be purchased at