Austin Ripley

Austin Ripley, a reformed alcoholic who became a famed mystery story writer, lived with his wife, Leone, in a home overlooking a bay of upper Tainter Lake. He was the founder of Hazelden and of the Guest House organization, both with the purpose of treating alcoholic clergy of the Roman Catholic faith. One source has estimated the he has “helped more than 9000 alcoholic Roman Catholic clergy” though those organizations. SUBMITTED PHOTO / For Dunn County News

Thank you, Dunn County News, for permission to reprint the following article of great local Catholic interest, and for use of the above photo.

December 27, 2009 12:00 am
  •  By John RussellScenes of Yesteryear
This month’s issue of the Catholic Digest, a publication of the Roman Catholic Church, features an article “How Guest House saved my life,” by Father Bill, a priest of that faith whose life had been trapped by his addiction to alcohol. He tells of ministering with another priest who had been an active alcoholic for years, and in the process became addicted himself.

He found himself “consuming three packs of cigarettes and a quart of whiskey a day.”  After 10 years of this addiction, his bishop sent him to Guest House, a treatment center for Roman Catholic clergy that had been founded by an recovering alcoholic, Austin Ripley, a devout layman and  parishioner of St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Menomonie.

Guest House, still going strong, was the a project conceived and established by mystery writer, Austin Ripley, a recovered alcoholic who came to Wisconsin in the early 1930s and settled in Dunn County in a home overlooking upper Tainter Lake.

Mystery writer

It was there he wrote what he called “Minute Mysteries,” featuring Professor Fordney. The series found its way not only in more than 100 newspapers, but also in school classrooms where English teachers found that the short little mysteries aided “…in inferential thinking and reading for details… and productive to start each day …with a minute mystery that the class tries to solve.”

Ripley also conceived a new feature, “Photo Crime,” starring detective Hannibal Cobb who solved hundreds of cases based on one or more photographs combined with a few sparse paragraphs that held the clues for the readers of Look Magazine to solve in every issue.  One memorable story was set in Menom-onie, and there were others with apparent local ties.

That was the way he made his living, but as a recovering alcoholic, he felt he must help others with the addiction he had fought for most of his life. In 1947, five years after he stopped drinking,  he founded Hazel-den, a treatment center in Minnesota specifically for alcoholic Roman Catholic priests. 

Two years later, other key supporters decided that the patient base should be incorporated “…as a sanatorium for curable alcoholics of the professional class.” Today there are Hazelden units located in several states, and in London, England, and it is still growing and open to all faiths. 

New beginning

Although Ripley was rightly proud about his successful launch of Hazelden, it appears that he felt that opening the facility to the “professional class” did not fulfill his vision of what would be best for the reclamation of alcoholic clergy of the Roman Catholic Church.

Four years later, in 1951, he found an answer in establishing  a retreat that he called “Guest House”  in nearby Chippewa Falls,  dedicated to the treatment of Roman Catholic priests, deacons, brothers ad seminarians to, as he put it, “save the individual; save the vocation.” It was a new beginning.

It wasn’t long before the new facility in Chippewa Falls became inadequate to the needs. Ripley found that newspaper magnate William Scripps’ mansion in Lake Orion, Mich., valued at moe than $2 million, was available for a mere $185.000. 

Ripley came up with part of the money to buy the estate, and the Archdiocese of Detroit paid the balance. Ripley’s Guest House had found a new home.

Today, the Michigan-based Guest House has an annual budget of more than $7 million and operates two major licensed and accredited treatment centers — Lake Orion and another in Rochester, Minn. Services of the Guest House now involve cooperative ventures with Roman Catholic centers in Downingtown, Pa., and in Mangalore, India.

Austin Ripley’s original concept remains “devoted to caring for Roman Catholic priests, deacons, brothers, seminarians, [and since, 1994, women religious], suffering from alcoholism, chemical dependencies, and other addictions involving food and gambling It has been estimated by one source that more than 9,000 priests, male religious, and women religious have passed through the  doors of Guest House, with a  nearly 75 percent success in recovery. This has been great achievement for a mystery writer, a recovering alcoholic himself, who succeeded in his own pursuit of healing.

Snap assignment             

During the early 1940s, I worked Sunday afternoons at Lee’s Drug Store. Mr. Ripley always stopped in after church to buy a newspaper, and he always had time to visit.  He was a tall gentleman, always impeccably dressed, and I valued his friendship. 

After I returned from WWII,  I enrolled in journalism at UW-Madison. On one occasion, to test our ability to write under fire, we were assigned to interview a “famous” person visiting Madison. It was a snap assignment for me — Ripley happened to be in town that week and granted me an interview. 

My instructor was very pleased and a little surprised that I was able to interview Ripley.

John Russell, a local photographer and Dunn County resident, writes a weekly column for The Dunn County News. He is curator emeritus of the Dunn County Historical Society.