DUBLIN, Ireland—Sister Consillio has her believers.

“She is a saint, there is no doubt about it,” said one Dublin man of the 61-year-old Sister of Mercy who founded Ireland's most effective program for treating alcoholism and drug addiction. “She got me back my son.”

His son had been a heroin addict at the age of 14. Now, nine years later, after having completed Sister Consillio's program, the boy is heroin-and methadone-free. And the family is celebrating its first happy Christmas in almost a decade.

The family's problems were by no means unique. Behind Ireland's friendly tourist image, there is a dark secret: The country's inner-cities drug problem is one of the worst in the world.

A report in the 1980s found that 10% of those aged 15 to 24 in Dublin's north inner city were heroin addicts—a higher rate than New York City's at the height of its heroin epidemic in the Vietnam War era.

In one class of 30 pupils who attended a north Dublin school 10 years ago, 15 are now dead from consequences of drug abuse and another 11 are drug addicts.

The Dublin man who asked to remain anonymous recalled how he and his wife were close to despair over their young son's addiction. They had to keep their bedroom door permanently locked with all their valuables inside. The addiction was affecting them too: The boy's mother wasn't eating and the father was taking to drink.

But after completing a program at Cuan Mhuire (Our Lady's Harbor) in Athy, County Kildare, the boy has been off heroin and methadone for over two months. In that time he gained 28 pounds and once again appeared fit and healthy. Today it seems hard to believe he was once a scrawny heroin addict, ready to rob and steal for his next fix.

This kind of transformation isn't unusual among those who complete Sister Consillio's program. Addicts often leave Cuan Mhuire healthier and full of self-esteem. Even more striking is their willingness to talk about God and how he gives them a purpose in life.

One reason is that Sister Consillio's programs do not just treat addicts on a medical, physical, and psychological basis; spiritual formation is a key element.

During their treatment, addicts rise at 6:30 a.m., have breakfast, and then meditate for an hour, repeating the mantra “Marana tha” which means “Come, Lord.” They are then given physical work to do, and after dinner they meditate for an hour again. Before bed at 10 p.m., everyone is expected to join in reciting the rosary.

Participants undergo a period of detoxification, followed by a recovery which may take a week. During this time, participants are fed and cared for. Costs are partially covered by whatever social welfare payments they receive. The Cuan Mhuire program is voluntary, and enrollees have to take urine tests to prove they are making efforts to overcome their addiction.

Participants receive counseling and are asked to share in group discussions—activities designed to help them love themselves and love others.

Sister Consillio believes the work aspect is essential too: “If someone came back to Dublin without knowing how to do a day's work, there is no point in the curriculum. When they come back from the program, none of them have any difficulty in getting jobs.”

Sister Consillio started working with alcoholics 34 years ago, after she came into contact with homeless men who would call to her convent's kitchen in Athy, about 25 miles southwest of Dublin. “At first I thought that if they went to a doctor and found a home, their problems would go away,” she said. “Then I realized their problem was a lack of love, especially a lack of love for themselves.”

She started by helping these hard-drinking men to realize the love of God and the love within them and was soon achieving remarkable results. But the convent, so close to schools and to pubs, was no place to treat recovering alcoholics. An auction of land outside Athy was advertised and Sister Consillio asked for permission to attend the sale.

“I bought the land with no money, but the owner said I could move in before he had been paid,” she recalled. “He then died, so that was another year before I had to pay. I also got two years’ credit from Harrington's builders-providers in Naas and that is what started us off.

“Over the years the program has been revealed to us. It's about dignity and the value of every person. Cuan Mhuire is a place where people come and they ask themselves who they are, what their lives are about, where they are going, and what is their purpose in life.” Participants are taught to do things out of love, without expecting a reward.

“We use the rosary because our Lady works through it in a big way and it helps people to discover that they have all they need within them,” Sister Consillio added. “People who are not Catholics take to it more quickly; I think they are delighted to discover that form of prayer, whereas some Catholics have been indoctrinated against the rosary.

“Many of the young people from Dublin would not have been to the sacraments since their Confirmation. They don't understand about the Blessed Sacrament, but they take to it like ducks to water. It is they who keep adding prayers to the end of the rosary, though I wouldn't be in favor of making it any longer.”

The Sister of Mercy said other drug programs are not as successful as hers because they do not have a spiritual element. Her followers claim a 90% success rate, but it is a figure she does not use, pointing out that an alcoholic or a drug addict can relapse in a moment of weakness.

The Coolmine Drug Treatment Center, the main drug treatment center in Ireland, did not think it appropriate to comment on other programs. But Tony Geoghegan of the Merchant Quay Project, which runs a drop-in center for addicts in Dublin, said: “Certainly, Sister Consillio's program provides a spiritual dimension that people need. But her program does not suit everyone. You have to be able to go away for a long period to take part in her residential programs, and not everyone is able to do that. For example if you have children, you can't just pack your bags and go.

“Her program uses the disease model and says that total abstinence is required—that also doesn't suit everyone. Not everyone can cope with total abstinence.”

Yet, of the 50,000 people who have come into contact with Cuan Mhuire and her other treatment centers, Sister Consillio said, “It is impossible to spend any time in our houses without being affected for the good.”

She said the true extent of the drug problem is being hidden from the public. “A few nights ago, I asked the boys how many of them knew someone who had died on the streets—they all knew at least two people, some knew as many as 10 who were dead.”

Asked why she believes young people take to drugs, Sister Consillio said: “I think the main reason is poor self-image. An awful lot come from unhappy homes were there are breakups in marriages. Another important reason is materialism—life is meaningless in the materialistic world. Another reason is that the young people have no faith and the faith is not being passed on.”

Cian Molloy writes from Dublin, Ireland.