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Jan. 16, 2019

By Darcy Fargo

Inmates receive Sacraments of Initiation

DANNEMORA – “I’ve made some bad decisions, but I have a wife and son. It was time to better myself as a Dannemoraman and better my faith.”

Those were the words of Abner Alvarez, an inmate at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora. Alvarez was one of four inmates who received the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and First Communion from Bishop Terry R. LaValley at the Church of St. Dismas, the Good Thief, the church built behind the prison walls. Another 10 inmates were confirmed, as well.

Alvarez, serving a 25-years to life sentence, said he first became interested in the Catholic Church after talking to Deacon Frank Bushey, the prison’s chaplain.

“I was working with Deacon Bushey, cleaning the offices,” Alvarez said. “He would talk to me about my family. He would talk to me about faith. It just made me think about it more.”

Inmate Pedro Abad received the sacrament of Confirmation at the prison church, as well. He said he was baptized as a child, but was never confirmed, instead trying several different faith traditions over the years.
“This has been good for me,” said Abad, who is serving an eight- to 25-year sentence. “There are a lot of temptations to make bad choices here. I’m trying to get where I’m constantly thinking, ‘what would Jesus do?’ This is about trying to be a better man.”

The sacraments were administered by Bishop LaValley in a Mass held in the only Catholic Church in the United States built behind prison walls, with inmates, clad in green uniforms, serving as lectors and musicians. One of the readings was read in Spanish, one in English.

In his homily, Bishop LaValley focused on “vision.”Dannemora

“We all struggle with vision at some point,” said Bishop LaValley. “But our God has a vision for us. He has a plan for us. If we live that plan, we’ll know nothing but happiness in this life and the next. That’s God’s vision for you and me.”

Bishop LaValley noted that we all struggle with our sinfulness, even as we try to follow God’s plan.

“We stumble. We commit sins. We get in trouble,” Bishop LaValley said. “Sometimes we get caught, sometimes we don’t, but we’re all sinners.”

It’s in those moments that we rely on God’s grace and mercy, as well as the companions who help us along the journey, Bishop LaValley said.

Bishop LaValley prayed the inmates were open to the Gifts of the Holy Spirit – wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord – and would receive those gifts and use them.

“Maybe the sacraments are glasses God gives us to help our vision,” he said.

Deacon Bushey said seeing inmates work on their faith makes his work in the facility worthwhile.

“Seeing inmates grow in their conversion experience, making positive change, and seeing the impact on their lives and their families is rewarding,” he said. “Their receiving the sacraments is a new beginning for them.”


The church behind the walls


















DANNEMORA – Driving along state Route 374, the main route through the town, it’s nearly impossible to ignore the long, imposing wall of the third oldest prison in New York, Clinton Correctional Facility. But from that southern wall of the facility, it’s impossible to know that the complex houses the only known Catholic Church built behind prison walls in the United States, possibly in the world.

The Church St. Dismas, the Good Thief, was constructed between 1939 and 1941. Construction of the church, named for the “good thief” who was crucified with Christ and asked to be remembered in paradise, was spearheaded by Father Ambrose Hyland, then chaplain at the facility, who was inspired to undertake the project after receiving a vision in a dream.

After clearing legal and administrative hurdles to obtain approval to build the facility, Father Hyland was tasked with gathering the materials and tradesman needed for construction.

Construction materials were obtained from local buildings that were abandoned or in disrepair, and from stones collected in the area. Other materials were donated, including red oak for pews that was donated by mobster Charles “Lucky” Luciano, a former inmate at the facility.

Two angel carvings, said to be rescued from Ferdinand Magellan’s ship that sank in the 1500s, were donated by descendants of the Magellan family.

Much of the labor to build the church was performed by inmates, trained in the trades by correctional officers, volunteers and other inmates who came to the facility with those skills.

An inmate, incarcerated for forgery, is said to have created the stained-glass windows, which also double as Stations of the Cross, after learning the trade from artisans sent to the prison to aid in the project. The inmate, Carmelo Soraci, is said to have used the faces of other inmate volunteers as the inspiration for the faces in the windows.

Soraci’s work is said to have helped him secure an early release.

“It’s really a beautiful church,” said Deacon Frank Bushey, who serves as a chaplain at Clinton Correctional Facility. “And the vast majority of the population will never see it.”

On the grounds around the church, inmates constructed a Grotto to Our Lady, a reproduction of the Grotto in Lourdes.

The church was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.

The prison is currently maintained by an inmate crew, under the supervision of correctional staff.

“It’s the best job in the prison,” said one inmate on the crew. “We get to do something important.”

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