High Watch History and Alcoholics Anonymous
High Watch has a rich history connected to both the New Thought movement and more profoundly, Alcoholics Anonymous. Inspired by AA co-founder Bill W., High Watch was established in 1940 as the world’s first 12-Step treatment center. The debate over the role of Alcoholics Anonymous versus the role of professional treatment can be traced back to the first days of High Watch Farm. It was at that time, AA’s future was set to remain independent from the business of “treatment” for alcoholics. Today, AA’s widespread use of the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi is attributed to Sister Francis (Etheldred Folsom), the woman who gave the farm to Bill W. in 1940. The colorful history of High Watch begins with Sister Francis.
Sister Francis was born into a well educated, affluent family with the given name of Ethelred Frances Folsom. She was most often called Sister Francis because of her affinity for the life and prayer of St. Francis. Sister Francis identified herself as a book illustrator and a landscape artist. Today, she is better known as a visionary and healer.
Two interrelated themes stand out in Sister Francis’s life and writings: practical service to those in need of healing, and, the desire to let ’the real Christ self shine through’. “As she practiced healing, Sister Francis disagreed with the revivalist tenet of a man as a sinner. She wrote that it wasn’t easy for good “to manifest when they all think themselves sinners. It makes me realize more than ever the necessity of getting away from the teaching of evil and sin and fastening our minds on being sons of God.” She chose to live day to day and express all the joy she could.
With a vision of creating a place of retreat for anyone in need of healing, Sister Francis purchased farmland in Kent, CT in 1926. She named it Joy Farm. Joy Farm’s oldest building, an 18th century farmhouse, was called the Mother House. Sister Francis designated one room for a chapel, providing both healing and worship services. The Mother House offered “love, companionship, comforting, pity and tenderness” to all who came. Today, this building remains the spiritual center of High Watch housing the Chapel and offering comfort to all in need of healing.
New Thought Movement
Sister Francis was a disciple of Emma Curtis Hopkins, the creator of the New Thought Movement. Like Hopkins, Sister Francis believed the Highest to be found in the teachings of all religions. Her reading ranged from The Fellowship of Silence, to Cosmic Consciousness, to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Her books on Catholicism, meditation, yoga, mysticism, and spiritualism remain at High Watch today.
When Emma Curtis Hopkins died in 1925, her sister Estelle Carpenter, nee Estelle Curtis, inherited the rights to her writings. To ensure that Hopkins writings remained available to others, Estelle Carpenter along with New Thought disciples, Sister Francis and Morrison P. Helling, signed papers incorporating the Ministry of the High Watch at Joy Farm in 1928. The role of the Ministry was to preserve the writings of Emma Curtis Hopkins and provide a simple and rustic retreat for body and soul of those in need of spiritual sustenance.
The Meaning of High Watch
Hopkins frequently referenced the “high watch” in her New Thought writings during the late 1800s. From her writings in the pamphlet, Resume, keeping the high, or upward watch, means “maintaining an elevated consciousness that looks up to (metaphorical) heaven to find God. “If one keeps a high watch, identifying oneself with an illuminated consciousness, true reality is manifest – one finds God within.”
The Ministry relied on freewill offerings for support. Guests included artists and writers like Eloise Lownsbery who wrote the children’s book, Lighting the Torch, at Joy Farm. New Thought figure, Albert Grier, founder of the Church of Truth, was one of the better known guests. Notable to the role that High Watch would have on AA history, were guests Nona and Walter. Both had drinking problems but found they had no desire to drink when they spent their summers at Joy Farm.
Nona was Marty Mann’s first successful 12 Step call. Marty, the first woman to maintain continuous sobriety in AA, was reading to Nona from the book Alcoholics Anonymous when Nona said the book reminded her of Joy Farm and Sister Francis. Nona felt that what AA was doing aligned with the principles and teachings of Joy Farm.
Bill, Lois and Marty Mann
Nona, Walter, Marty, Bill and Lois W. first came to Joy Farm on Nov. 4, 1939. They were to spend the weekend with Sister Francis. Marty Mann would later describe their arrival, “There was something there, something that was really palpable that you could feel and every one of us felt it. To say that we fell in love with it, is not to use the right terminology at all. We were engulfed…What is at the Farm was already at the Farm before we ever found it. It found us, in my opinion.” Bill W. is famously known for describing the spiritual atmosphere upon their arrival as being so thick, you could cut it with a knife.
AA members fell in love with the Farm and Sister Francis fell in love with AA. She thought AA members “were living the way she believed.” What she understood of AA clearly resonated with the traditions and principles of the Ministry of the High Watch.
High Watch Farm Is Born
By 1940, AA Members began to stay at the Farm. Bill and Lois W. spent six weekends at the farm that first summer, when Joy Farm officially became High Watch Farm. A Not-for Profit 501(c)(3) Organization was formed and in the fall, AA members were asked to serve on the Board of Directors. Marty Mann, Walter W. and Ray Campbell were elected to the first board in October 1940.
St. Francis Prayer
In 1942, Bobby B., one of the secretaries of the Alcoholic Foundation wrote to Sister Francis saying, “your (I always think of it as yours) Prayer of St. Francis is becoming so well known and loved in AA, that we are having 500 printed to send out to the older members…knowing your great love and reliance on the prayer I felt you would want to know of this.”
It has been speculated that Bill W.’s familiarity with the Prayer of St. Francis came from Sister Francis. In the early 50s, Bill wrote a second book, the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, where he introduced using the Prayer of St. Francis as a model for those who had no experience with prayer and meditation to guide them through the eleventh step in AA’s 12 Steps of recovery.
The St. Francis Prayer epitomizes the way of life AA’s and Sister Francis believed in and practiced. And Sister Francis maintained her commitment to the Ministry and influenced its activities and direction through the 1950s. In 1950, she signed an amendment to the Articles by adding “all income was to be devoted exclusively and permanently to the religious and charitable purposes of the corporation and to the rehabilitation of alcoholics.”
High Watch Recovery Center
Now, seventy years later, High Watch remains a non-profit dedicated to healing those suffering from the chronic illness of drug and alcohol addiction. Each resident receives state-of-the-art, customized medical care while learning the lessons on how to stay sober through the spiritual teachings and practice of the 12 Step principles of Alcoholics Anonymous.