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Church of St. Dismas, the Good Thief

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Subject: Penitent thief, Clinton Correctional Facility
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Church of St. Dismas, the Good Thief

Church of St. Dismas, the Good Thief
Church of St. Dismas, the Good Thief
Location Clinton Correctional Facility, Cook St., Dannemora, New York

44°43′29″N 73°43′21″W / 44.72472°N 73.72250°W / 44.72472; -73.72250Coordinates: 44°43′29″N 73°43′21″W / 44.72472°N 73.72250°W / 44.72472; -73.72250

Area 1.1 acres (0.45 ha)
Built 1939
Architect Murphy,Frederick Vernon; Lorcroft,Thomas
Architectural style Neogothic
Governing body State
NRHP Reference # 91001673[1]
Added to NRHP November 21, 1991

Church of St. Dismas, the Good Thief is a historic Roman Catholic church at the Clinton Correctional Facility on Cook Street in Dannemora, Clinton County, New York. The church was built between 1939 and 1941 and is a large Neogothic inspired stone chapel. It was constructed of fieldstones salvaged from several 19th century stone structures already on the site, including the prison's first cell block. The rectangular building measures 52 feet (16 m) by 132 feet (40 m). It features a steeply pitched, slate-clad gable roof and two massive oak entrance doors with Medieval inspired metal strapwork. A 106-foot (32 m), engaged tower with corner buttresses and an octagonal spire is located at the rear corner.[2]

It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.[1]

Church Description

From the August 28, 1941 Dedicatory Program:

Four years ago, Father Ambrose R. Hyland brought to this prison the inspired dream to build an edifice devoted exclusively to the worship of God and dedicated to Saint Dismas the Good Thief, Patron of the Condemned. At that time, his “black sheep” parishioners had faint hope in their Chaplain’s visionary inspiration. They knew that faith and untiring endeavors alone could not build the structure. They were skeptical of the benevolence of all creeds – of the goodness and generosity of men and women in the free world, so essential to the success of the plan. Today, Father Hyland’s faith is vindicated, his dream is a reality.

Symbolic it is, that the Church of The Good Thief should be erected on the site where formerly stood an old stable and that its congregation should be “fallen men.” For the Christ Child was born in a manger. And, after a life of humility and service, suffered the agonies of crucifixion that the sinful might have Eternal Life.

Located on the highest point within the walls, the cathedral-like edifice was built entirely by the inmates of Clinton Prison out of native stone, much of which came from the old prison wall. It is 52 x 150 feet, with a tower adjoining it on the southeast corner. This tower rises to a height of 106 feet and terminates in a cross-crowned spire, which dominates the Champlain and Saranac Valleys. In the spire, are four niches containing sculptured studies of the four Evangelists: Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. At the base of the spire are old cathedral-like gargoyles depicting demons. Atop the cross on the spire is a beacon light, a token to the world that Hope still lives in the hearts of men- even of those men who will never have Freedom again.

From the pinnacle of the outside vestibule a marble statue of Christ welcomes you with outstretched arms. You enter and are impressed by the massive stone portals which support a great white marble relief study of Saint Dismas the Good Thief, indicating the Patron to whom the Church is dedicated.

Going from the vestibule into the main body of the Church, you are struck with the great golden altar reredos recessed in a 40-foot stone arch. This is the historical Magellan Altar which was brought to the Philippines in 1521 by the Portuguese navigator. In this reconstructed Altar is a huge mural painting of Saint Dismas as he appeared at Calvary, tied to the Cross. To this are added two other paintings. One depicts the great navigator leaving the Port of Spain, being blessed by the Bishop before his departure; the other portrays his death in the Philippines, from where the Altar was removed to Washington, D.C., and later donated to the Church.

The main altar table is of red Numidian marble, imported from Africa and trimmed with goldedn Sienna marble from Italy and native white marble from Vermont. Centrally located in the altar is a masterpiece of bronze and gold craftsmanship – a four-foot liturgical tabernacle studded with precious stones. Towering over the altar is a hand-carved crucifix executed by the Oberammergau Passion Players of Bavaria.

The Sanctuary ceiling panels are richly adorned in colors and symbols of the early Church.

Behind the ceiling grilles is concealed the $25,000 pipe organ, the donation of two Jewish benefactors. The organ console is located in the Sanctuary, which is laid out in monastic fashion with oak stalls. These stalls will seat the forty inmate members of the vested Good Thief Choir. The side altars, similar in material and workmanship to that of the main altar, are dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary. The altar rail is of oak and hand-wrought iron.

Overhead are sixteen 6-foot Gothic lanterns, of hand-wrought iron and colored glass. They give beautiful light and ornamentation as well. The ceiling is an open-English hammered-beam construction of white pine with fill-ins of hand-carved filigrees. The panels are richly designed and colored with red, gold, blue and ivory stencils.

The walls of the Church are of litholyte molded block. Marbleoid and terra cotta tile cover the entire floor. The massive pews are of heavy Appalachian red oak.

In the rear of the Church is a beautifully executed Baptistry in wrought iron, marble and oak; a special study in oils of the Prodigal Son adorns the rear wall. A richly colored Rose Window diffuses the rays of the sun over the center aisle.

It is the hope of the Chaplain that some kind benefactors will assist us in reproducing the Stations of the Cross in Stained Glass. The fourteen large Gothic Windows are at present set with plain translucent glass.

The edifice embraces many more descriptive features which lend it added impressiveness and solemnity. Engineers have estimated the valuation of the Church at $250,000 and it will be presented as a gift to the State of New York on the occasion of the Dedication.

The moneys which were raised from private sources not only produced the Church, but also aided in establishing the trade schools of carpentry, masonry, sacred oil painting, draftsmanship, sculpturing, etc.

That the Church will be a “little bit of Heaven” inside these walls, and make possible the moral and spiritual training which is the fundamental basis for the reclamation – for God and Country – of the unfortunates confined herein, is our hope and prayer.


External links

  • Church of the Good Thief -- short documentary
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