Jim Graves is a Catholic writer and editor living in Newport Beach, California. He previously served as Managing Editor for the Diocese of Orange Bulletin, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Orange, California. His work has appeared in the National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor, Cal Catholic Daily and Catholic World Report.
The Church of St. Dismas is a beautiful historic stone Catholic church located inside the walls of the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemore, New York. It was built 80 years ago, a project initiated by its prison chaplain, Fr. Ambrose Hyland (1900-54). Materials and funding for the church were donated; former inmate and gangster “Lucky” Luciano (1897-1962), for example, donated red oak for the pews. Inmates supplied labor, including incarcerated forger Carmelo Louis Soraci, who created the building’s colorful stained glass windows, modeling faces after the inmates he knew.
The prison church was named for St. Dismas, the “Good Thief” who was promised heaven by Christ as he died alongside Him. Visitors see an image of the crucified St. Dismas as they enter the church as well as above the entry to the church. Other notable features include two angel carvings said to be from the flagship of explorer Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521), and a Lourdes grotto located alongside the church.
The church and prison are located inside the boundaries of the Diocese of Ogdensburg, located in upper New York along the Canadian border. It has a Catholic population of 90,000 served by 93 parishes and seven missions. Deacon Frank Bushey of the Ogdensburg diocese is assigned as Catholic prison chaplain at the Clinton Correctional Facility; the bishop of the diocese, Terry LaValley, visits at least once a year to preach and provide the sacraments to the inmates. In January, he baptized, confirmed and gave first Communion to four inmates, and confirmed another 10.
Inmates are allowed to pray in the church on Sundays. Usually the church is closed to the general public, although a limited number of visitors are allowed for special occasions, such as a festival or visit by the bishop. The inmates help maintain the church and grounds. According to Deacon Bushey, vandalism or theft has never been a problem.
The Clinton Correctional Facility made the national news in 2015, when two inmates who were convicted murderers escaped. One was later recaptured, the other killed when authorities were attempting to recapture him.
In an interview, Deacon Frank Bushey offered some thoughts about working at the prison.
What benefits has the Church of St. Dismas offered to inmates?
The beauty of the church provides an emotional and spiritual escape from the darkness that can build within the incarcerated individuals. They have a place to go where the walls they have built come down and they can be open to a message of love, hope, forgiveness and redemption.
What are some of the typical problems inmates deal with?
Problems inmates have include a sense of guilt. They think, “I am not worthy.” In addition to a lack of self-worth, they think they can never be forgiven for what they have done. In offering a message of hope and helping build up an inmate’s faith, we help the inmate adjust to prison life and, in time, help him prepare to go home.
What else do you want to share?
St. Dismas is a very special and unique church where inmates find peace and build up their faith, knowing that they are coming to a place that was built entirely by inmates. It is a place where, at least on Sundays, they can feel a sense of normalcy, become better people and once they are released from prison, not come back.
It is a place that allows them to be part of a faith community to hear the Word, be nourished by the Eucharist and be transformed by grace. As Fr. Hyland said back in 1941, “Finishing the church wasn’t the end, but the beginning. There will be men like you years and decades from now who will work out their salvation right here.” That work continues this day.