People cheered the man who was 50 years sober, but they stood and screamed wildly for the guy who hadn't had a drink in a day.

"That's for you, Mr. One Day," someone yelled at the stunned young man who stood before a group of about 1,500 members of Alcoholics Anonymous gathered at the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul on Saturday.

They were there to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the founding of the AA's Philadelphia branch. But, more than a few attendees acknowledged, what people were really celebrating was their still being on the planet after the pain and wreckage the bottle had delivered.

In their zeal, veterans of the program simply wanted the newbie to see how folks can hang in and fight what one of the AA faithful termed "that cunning, baffling, powerful" alcohol.

Ordinarily, recovering alcoholics who live in the five-county area are accustomed to showing up at one of 1,500 weekly meetings held in small rooms and church basements.

But for Saturday, at least, they were permitted to sit in the basilica, blemished lives displayed under stained glass, one floor closer to the God so many in AA rely on to make it clean and sober through one more day.

"Please, God," a 60-year-old man said he'd ask his maker, "cure me from my hangover and forgive me for lying to you about stopping drinking - because I cannot stop drinking."

Since its founding in Akron, Ohio, 80 years ago, Alcoholics Anonymous has been both embraced as the most effective way to vanquish addiction, and denigrated as a feckless amalgam of religion and false science.

People in the program say one in seven stays sober for at least a year. But according to the Cochrane Library, a collection of medical databases, no reputable study has ever demonstrated AA's efficacy.

Around 17 million Americans have problems with alcohol, but just a fraction of people with such difficulties ever seek professional help, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

A combination of therapy and anti-alcohol drugs such as naltrexone may be the best course, some medical authorities say.

Perhaps. But a few AA members said Saturday nothing beats the vaunted 12-step program that works if you stick with it.

"The biggest criticism is this is a cultlike organization and you must accept the vision of the founders," a Center City man who's been sober 26 years said before the program Saturday.

"But all you have to do is take what you need. The only requirement is the desire to stop drinking and acknowledging this is a disease that needs treatment."

Because recounting tales of dissolution and damage are part of any AA meeting, a few people shared their harrowing stories – but only their first names, an AA tradition.

"So there I was, lying in my own puke on the paddy wagon floor," one man began.

"I was going to buy a bottle of Jack Daniels and a Smith and Wesson .44 and just finish it all," a slender woman said, "but it was a Sunday and I couldn't buy the stuff. So I called AA."

In quaint, self-deprecating tones, people recounted the most monstrous thoughts, acts, and events connected to sliding alcohol down their throats.

They told of vicious cycles, dark nights, loss, fear, and angst.

And always - always, they said - there was AA to halt the madness and preserve life.

"I'd be dead without this program," a 37-year-old Philadelphia schoolteacher said after the anniversary celebration.

He'd been arrested for his third DUI while his second was still pending in court.

"Now I'm six years sober," he said. "I have said 'no' to drink."

alubrano@phillynews.com

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@AlfredLubrano