For sixteen years Matt Talbot was a daily drunk. Then one day an unanticipated conversion transformed him and he became a model penitent.
As a child of a poor family in Dublin, Matt had to forgo school for a job. After a year of basic education, in 1868 he started working as a messenger for a wine seller. Matt’s father was already an alcoholic, so the job environment played on a family weakness, and Matt started drinking heavily at the early age of twelve.
His father beat him, made him change jobs—but nothing could stop Matt’s habit. After work he and his buddies went straight to the pub. Matt spent every penny on drink and once pawned his boots for a pint. Remarkably, his drinking did not prevent his putting in a good day’s work. And he said that when he was intoxicated he occasionally thought about the Blessed Mother and prayed an off-handed Hail Mary. Matt speculated later that she may have had something to do with his conversion.
One day in 1884 everything suddenly changed. Matt had been out of work several days and expected his buddies to take him drinking. When they snubbed him, he made a decision that transformed his life irrevocably. Mary Andrews, his sister, reported what happened when Matt came home that day:
My mother said, “You’re home early, Matt, and you’re sober!” He replied, “Yes, mother, I am.” After dinner he remained in the house which was not usual, and finally he remarked to my mother. “I’m going to take the pledge.” She smiled and said, “Go, in God’s name, but don’t take it unless you are going to keep it.” He said, “I’ll go, in God’s name.”
As he was going out mother said, “God give you strength to keep it.” He went to Clonliffe, made his confession, and took the pledge for three months. He had been a couple of years away from the sacraments then. Next morning—Sunday—he went to Holy Communion. On Monday he went to 5 a.m. Mass in Gardiner Street and was at his work as usual at 6 a.m. This he made a regular practice from that time on.
But after his work, to keep away from his companions, he used to walk to a distant church, either St. Joseph’s, Berkeley Road, or St. Peter’s, Phibsboro, and remain there until bedtime.
Once or twice—possibly on a Saturday—he went with the men to the public house, but he drank only minerals, and he usually spent Saturday afternoons away from where he might meet his old companions, and generally in a church. He had a bad time of it at first and sometimes said to my mother, that, when the three months were up, he would drink again.
But Matt extended the three months into forty-one years. His new behavior flabbergasted everyone. Matt supported his sobriety with traditional Catholic disciplines such as prayer, frequent communion, weekly confession, spiritual reading, fasting, and service. He also seems to have taken guidance from a wise spiritual director, but the person’s name is not known. In 1891, Matt found community support by joining the Franciscan Third Order. He lived the rest of his life quietly, working and praying and encouraging others to quit drinking. Matt Talbot died walking to Mass on Sunday, June 7, 1925.
from Voices of the Saints, by Bert Ghezzi