April 12, 2017
By Shawn Ryan
Dannemora - One of the North Country’s most reclusive jewels had a rare chance to show herself off on April 1. Normally seen only by a chosen few, St. Dismas Church, the Church of the Good Thief at Clinton Correctional Institute, opened its doors to some special guests to celebrate the 75th anniversary of its dedication.
The congregants included Clinton inmates, corrections officials including the Acting Commissioner of Corrections, and a who’s-who of local citizens and politicians alike.
The first free-standing church built entirely behind prison walls in this country, St. Dismas was the idea and passion of Father Ambrose Hyland, the chaplain at then Dannemora prison from 1937 to 1953.
After lengthy efforts to raise funds, construction began on the church in 1939, and was completed in 1941. Massive even by “civilian” church standards, the building stands 150 feet long, 52 feet wide and its tower rivals the surrounding prison wall at 106 feet high.
The Mass itself focused on the theme of 75 years of redemption, and the ability to follow the example of Jesus not just after an inmate is released, but within the institution as well.
“For 75 years individuals have been coming into this sacred space to find hope, to find peace, to know God,” Bishop LaValley said before the Mass, addressing inmates and civilians alike.
“Too often we see too little hope in our world,” he said. “I’m sure that at times you too struggle to find hope in your personal world. Nothing humankind can do will stop God’s promise. It’s never too late to return to him.”
With inmates clothed in varying shades of “prison green” filling the first four rows on either side of the church, and ringed with a phalanx of corrections officers, the first two readings were given in Spanish, as is the tradition at St. Dismas, and afterwards in English.
In a very hope-filled sermon aimed primarily at the church’s regular parishioner, Bishop LaValley stressed the need to look forward to the “hope in life that Christ brings,” rather than looking backwards at past failings.
“If I only pay attention to past mistakes, to the wrongs I’ve suffered and the deeds I’ve done, I end up in the ditch of life,” Bishop LaValley said. “I end up in darkness.”
“Think, and pray about the possibilities eternal life brings,” he said. “On the cross Jesus said to Dismas ‘today you will be with me in paradise.’ Can you imagine more hope-filled words?
“If this church is about anything, it is about hope,” the bishop said.
After the service, inmates were led out of the church first, with several thanking the guests for coming to help them celebrate St. Dismas’ anniversary.
After they were gone, guests were encouraged to walk around the church, and view the numerous pieces of prisoner-produced spiritual artwork, including the much revered “Magellan Altar;” two large angels carved into large pieces of dark wood mounted into the wall behind the altar.
After leaving through the prison’s 15 foot high double-gates, topped by coils of razor-wire, Bishop LaValley commented on the meaning of the Mass to him.
“It was a very powerful expression for us to get together 75 years later, and celebrate the same Eucharist that Father Hyland celebrated at the first Mass held here,” he said.
On the bumpy ride back on the caged prison bus, Msgr. Dennis Duprey, Dean of Clinton County, summed up the overarching message of the day.
“The truth is, God is everywhere, “ he said. “He’s just as much in there, as he is out here with us.”