is a jewel set in the mountains, a jewel made of stone, iron, oak, and
colored glass, and it is a testimonial to all the best that can be
found in mankind, even thos most degraded and for whom their fellow man
have given up hope. It exists against all probablility for it is a
Gothic chapel built entirely by convict labor and it stands within the
grey walls of Clinton Correctional Facility at Dannemora, New
York. It is called the Church of Saint Dismas, the Good Thief,
and it is the first denominational church ever built within prison
was a sunny fall day when we were allowed to view this treasure, and as
we panted our way up the steep incline, we paused to catch our
breath. Climbing is not something one does in a hurry in the
rarified air of the Dannemora Mountains, so we turned and looked
out over the walls at the kaliedescopic colors which glinted and almost
buzzed in the crystal air. The hills were a multicolored array of
ochre, russet, and lime, while off in the distance the blue waters of
Lake Champlain reached away to the south. Terrible to think of
all that beauty and so many inside who could not enjoy it.
the 1930s there was no chapel, per se, on the grounds. Services were
held in a dismal room with odds and ends of dilapidated furniture.
Masses contended with noises and fumes from the kitchen, and there was
a general air of apathy or indifference about whether
religious services should occurr at all. It was a disastrous
begining for any man of the cloth but then came a fighter, one who
would make his presence felt right away.
first, this man was covertly and distrustfully watched by the men who
were forgotten for the most part and treated as so much human garbage.
While living, they were treated as a burden society, and when they
died, they were hurriedly thrown into a pit of quicklime and forgotten
as quickly as possible. None of this was acceptable to a priest
who believed that man was made in the image of God, and he challenged
his parishioners to work with him in making changes. They would
begin with a church.
The warden was skeptical. Imagine, a church on state property? He didn't think so- but then, he studied the face before him.
"What would you do for money?" he asked. "For materials? And who would come here to build it?"
The priest didn't answer but there was something about the eyes. They'd seen a lot already, they were aware. The warden sighed, wondering if he could possibly realize what he'd get involved in.
"Okay," he said. "I'll let you have your site for a church. The rest is up to you."
"And God," came the quiet reply.
began surprisingly well. The prisoners demolished an old barn on the
other side of the mountain and manhandled the stones to the building
Coupled with the remnants
of an old wall and building which had once stood in the Big Yard,
it made an impressive pile of rubble.
The pastor travelled all over begging, exhorting, and the gifts began
to pour in. Loads of lumber and cement, a $25,000 organ donated
by Jewish brothers in New York City, a handmade crucifix made by the
Passion Players at Oberammergau, and an incredible altar which Magellan
had transported from Spain to the New World and which was now offered
by a wealthy New York matron. The walls rose higher.
The prisoners learned to develop talents heretofore practiced for
nefarious purposes. An engraver of counterfeit money became an
artist, painting beautiful murals and scenes for the stained-glass
windows; a cheat and sleight-of-hand artist put the altar together from
where it lay in many pieces like an enormous jigsaw puzzle; others
wrought impressive candelabra from beaten and hammered iron; and still
other's carved a bishop's throne, railings, and prie-dieus. The
idleness which had long been a problem in the prison no longer existed.
The walls rose to 106 feet. A second-story man climbed the high
scaffolding and guided the flying beams into place, and a recividist
stick-up man worked on his knees laying tiles until he had to be
hospitalized wih infection. He had worked in intense pain until the job
was finished. In days to come, he would be received into
the church. Morale was high and the men worked long hours, inventing
and improvising. then disaster struck!
A committee calling itself 'The New York League for the Seperation of
Church and State' served an injunction on the Department of Corrections
to stop the building of the church. But the priest and the
prisoners did not stop the work. While they waited for the case
to come to trial, they worked on the magnificent stained-glass windows.
It was difficult, for they did not have the right materials or
processes, until they invented the first electric kiln.
The Black Sheep choir practiced and practiced and the masons and
landscapers laid out an inspiring monastery garden with a grotto
replicating that of Lourdes.
Finally, on April 16th, 1940, Justice Russell ruled in favor of
the men. The publicity only helped their efforts and donations
poured in from Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, Jews. One convict
came up for parole and begged to stay on so he could see his job
through. A year later, the church was dedicated.
St. Dismas now stands on its majestic site, a solid piece of masonry
150 feet long by 52 feet wide. There are 16 lanterns suspended from the
beautiful vaulted ceiling , which is illuminated with the colors and
symbols of the early church. The main altar is made of red
African marble and native marble from Vermont. On the altar is a
four foot high tabernacle of bronze and gold, studded with
Outside, flowers bloom and well-trimmed shrubs accent and adorn the
walls . St. Dismas is maintained by inmates and it is an
inspiring reminder of what man may do when his efforts are correctly
channeled. It puts the lie to the statement that redemption is
impossible for those within prison walls.
During the four years of church construction, 200 convicts worked with
tools and other equipment not normally entrusted to prisoners and not
one of them broke a prison rule. Indeed, some of the men who were
involved in the project learned trades that were of benefit when
they were released. Of the so-called incorrigibles, one went on to join
a statuary firm, one became a master plumber, one an electrician, one
made blueprints for architects, and another continued his stained-glass
work in the Catskills. And the list went on-
For others, simply the change in attitude and the spirit of cooperation
went a long way towards shortening their sentences. And for some,
lifting the curse of 'idle time' was a blessing all of its own. The
chapel was built on their own time without pay or remuneration of any
kind , other than their own satisfaction. It was an inspiration
for those who'd never had inner resources to fall back on when things
There are now chapels on most prison sites, and the upkeep and
maintainance is usually a 'labor of love' on the part of the prisoners,
creating a bright spot in a spiritual wasteland.
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