Erik Vagenius, a father and an alcoholic, had four daughters under the age of 10.
One night in 1973, 16-month-old Patty, his youngest, was congested, but Vagenius and his wife figured she simply had a bad cold, and they would take her to the pediatrician in the morning.
Patty passed away during the night, and her three older sisters were the first to find her in her bed.
“She died on March 8, 1973, so they would’ve been almost 10, almost 8 and 4,” Vagenius said. “Patty had been sick during the night. Some people thought it might have been SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). Being daughter No. 4, you figure it’s no emergency, she’s just teething or she’s got a touch of a cold. So, we were going to take her to the doctor the next morning. God had other plans for her.”
As Vagenius examines the arc of his life – from altar boy to overly scrupulous seminarian to college student swigging beer (“Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I’m free at last!”) to alcoholic to wounded healer to substance abuse counselor – he reflects on the ancient proverb attesting to the power and accuracy of divine GPS: “God writes straight with crooked lines.”
Eight months after his daughter’s death, with absolutely nowhere else to turn and exhausted of any logical options or convenient places to hide, Vagenius entered a detox unit at Lutheran General Hospital in Chicago.
“I always imagine that my daughter is upstairs sitting on Big Daddy’s knee, saying, ‘Help my Dad, he’s a good guy,’” Vagenius said during a visit to the Archdiocese of New Orleans earlier this month, offering encouragement to the Substance Addiction Ministry (SAM) started by Deacon Louis Bauer to those “afflicted and affected” by alcohol and drugs.
After telling his story to a therapist, Vagenius said she told him: “Maybe Patty’s only mission on earth was to get you into AA treatment.”
“My last drink was at 4 o’clock, Oct. 26, 1973, a Friday,” Vagenius said. “I remember walking down the path to the hospital, the main building where they had their detox, and I looked up at the cross on the top of the hospital and simply said, ‘God, please help me.’”
For the last 44 years, Vagenius has been on a crusade to have the Catholic Church awaken to the pain of addiction that is everywhere, especially in the pews. When Deacon Bauer first heard Vagenius’ testimony at a national substance abuse conference in New Orleans in 2008, he felt compelled to do something.
“If I would not have taken off with this after hearing Erik, honestly, this would have been a sin of omission,” Deacon Bauer said. “I could not have lived with myself knowing I had a chance to do something, and I turned away from that chance.”
So, on Divine Mercy weekend in 2008, Deacon Bauer preached at all five Masses at St. Margaret Mary Church in Slidell.
“The Gospel just happened to be about the apostles being locked in the upper room because of fear of the Jews,” Deacon Bauer said. “I asked, ‘How many of us are self-imprisoned, locked up, because there is an addiction and the fear is I can’t let anybody know? The guilt, what I’ve done to my family, the shame of being discovered.’”
Deacon Bauer asked for a show of hands: How many people in the congregation were either afflicted with or affected by addiction in their family?
“I said, ‘You can’t lie. You’re in church,’” Deacon Bauer said.
Amazingly, 80 percent of the people raised their hands.
From that point, Deacon Bauer began SAM, offering education and resources on addiction to both those afflicted and affected. The SAM group, which does not do counseling but which offers support, information, networking and prayer, meets on the second and fourth Wednesday of the month at 7 p.m. in the Evangelization Building.
The group has expanded now into six of the archdiocese’s 10 deaneries, with the newest program starting at St. Dominic Church in New Orleans.
Vagenius said every church can do simple things to raise awareness of the possibility of recovery from addiction. The easiest way is to place regular bulletin announcements about AA or Al-Anon meetings in the area. Another way is to provide a parish space for regular meetings.
“I had a lady tell me she wanted to start something in her parish, and the pastor said, ‘I don’t want those people on my property,” Vagenius said. “Little did Father know that they’re already on the property every week. They’re there.”
Vagenius said when he treated priests who were alcoholics, the ones who moved into recovery and returned to their parish to tell their stories were embraced by their congregations.
“You know, to a man, they got a standing ovation,” Vagenius said. “One of my favorite books is ‘The Wounded Healer’ by Henri Nouwen who said that of all the fancy therapies in the world, the one that works best is, ‘I share my vulnerability, my pain, with you, and that gives you the courage to share yours back with me.’ It would be nice to have a ministry where we could help destigmatize this disease. What I want the ministry to do is to say that addiction is preventable, but if you get it, it’s treatable – and it ain’t a sin.”
As a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan – no longer can Cubs’ fans be called long-suffering since winning the World Series last year for the first time since 1918 – Vagenius had another epiphany last July. He and his family took in a game at Wrigley Field, and unexpectedly, his middle daughter Mary, with whom he had experienced a personal estrangement, was at the same game.
Vagenius was sitting behind the first-base dugout. Mary and her husband were in the upper deck. Vagenius’ eldest daughter Peggy Ann, who was sitting with her father, called Mary on her cell phone and asked for her to come down.
For the next few hours, Erik and Mary talked about their lives – and their pain. Erik had a chance to tell Mary about the therapy he was going through that year, 44 years after the death of Patty, his child and Mary’s sister, to unlock some of the anger he was feeling. He told all three of his daughters that at 77, “Dad is still working on himself.”
Erik’s reconciliation with Mary was sweet, divine, unplanned.
“It was at Wrigley Field, of all places,” Vagenius said. “I never knew it was coming.
Almost as though it had come out of left field.
For more information on SAM, contact Deacon Bauer at (985) 643-6124. Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.