The House That Crime Built


Ellie S. Thomas

Copyright 2011 by  Ellie S. Thomas


Photo of The Church of St. Dismas at Clinton Correctional Facility.

There 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 those 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 walls.

It 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.

In 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.  

At 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.

Building began surprisingly well. The prisoners demolished an old barn on the other side of the mountain and manhandled the stones to the building site.

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 precious stones.

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 got tough.

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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