Skip to comments.Prison chaplain remembers ("Behind the Walls with the Man Behind the Stole")
Posted on 07/10/2009 1:45:01 PM PDT by NYer
PLATTSBURGH — David "Son of Sam" Berkowitz attended his first religious seminar at Clinton Correctional Facility escorted by then-chaplain Donald Dashnaw.
"He just wanted to get exposure to the church," remembered Dashnaw, who for 58 years lived in Morrisonville and now resides in South Carolina.
Dashnaw was chaplain in the Dannemora maximum-security prison for three-and-a-half years.
Close-up interaction with inmates made him apprehensive beforehand, a nervousness not allayed by the background checks and fingerprinting he had to have done.
But once behind the walls, Dashnaw saw the incarcerated in a different light.
The inmates, he said, "were very open with me. I could see the humanity."
He remembers one man crying with him.
"He had killed his wife out of jealousy," Dashnaw said.
Before going to confession with the Catholic priest, some inmates would ask to see Dashnaw.
"Just to sort of rehearse, to get their feelings out," he said.
Dashnaw still has three clocks made for him as gifts from inmates.
"They're running beautifully."
CHURCH SPIRE FIND
It was after some soul searching that Dashnaw entered the deaconate program in 1981. In part, it was to pay back, for he was an outspoken opponent of an abortion clinic that operated in Schuyler Falls in the mid-1970s, and the going was rough. His protests even drew threats, he said.
"I feel God sort of protected me."
Dashnaw wrote about those experiences in an autobiographical work called "Intercessions in the Journey of a Deacon" in 2006. Now he has chronicled his chaplaincy at Clinton Correctional in "Behind the Walls with The Man Behind the Stole."
Dashnaw, 78, included in the 85-page book some photos he found in an out-of-print booklet called "Church of the Good Thief and the Padre of the Thieves."
Some show that church on the prison grounds under construction; another is a reproduction of a Novena to St. Dismas, for whom the church is named.
Dashnaw found the only copy he's ever seen of that booklet in the spire of the church.
"I just loved spending time up there," he reflected. "Up there, I could see Whiteface (mountain), the Green Mountains of Vermont ..."
Dashnaw, who for 18 years taught at Peru Central School, moved with his wife, Leona, to South Carolina in 1989, after his assignment at Clinton ended. There, he put his chaplaincy experience to work as Catholic minister of the Charleston County Detention Center. In 1997, he was named Chaplain of the Year by the Coastal Crisis Chaplaincy. For about five years, until 2007, he was coordinator of Prison Ministry of the Diocese of Charleston, which includes more than 20 state institutions and three federal prisons.
"I did the troubleshooting and assisted in the assignment of priests and deacons," he said.
These days, Dashnaw is a crisis responder for an ecumenical organization for such tragedies as murder, suicide and house fires. He also, for his parish, works with the sick and home-bound and in nursing homes.
His tenure as Clinton chaplain changed him, he said.
"I think it made me lose my feeling of superiority," Dashnaw mused. "Everybody is a sinner, that's what we're taught. I always said, 'Except for the grace of God, many of us would be there (incarcerated).'
"I got more humility."
"Behind the Walls with The Man Behind the Stole" is available from Dashnaw for $13.50, which includes postage. Reach him at P.O. Box 62254, North Charleston, SC 29419.
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.'
God bless those who serve in prison ministry.
Very interesting subject. I pray that his conversion is sincere.
I had friends who had a prison ministry and I went several times with other groups. It was such a blessing. The men were respectful and could they sing! There was a black group that sang up at Camp Georgetown who were amazing. I’d love to get involved again.
I believe it really is. His eyes are different than they were before. His whole countenance is alive instead of that dead look he had before Christ came into his life. I’ve seen him on television and his look is one of peace and not hatred and fear.
Then, do it! Apparently that is where our Lord has called you to service.
I don’t know anyone now who is involved in prison ministry. The ones I did know have died. I’m on dialysis three times a week, although if I could find a time on the days I’m free, I could go. I sing and that was one way I can contribute.
I’m sorry about your situation. However, there is always some way in which one can assist. Pray over it! My wish is to one day volunteer at a local hospital hospice. When my grandmother was dying, I took a walk down the hall and could not help but notice so many others who had no one at the side of their beds. I asked the nurse if there were visiting hours. She was most gracious in her response. “No”, she explained, “the family call from time to time to find out if their loved one has died. Then they come to pick up the belongings.” That has bothered me immensely. No one should die alone!
I was involved in a ‘friends of hospice’ group and had one man we visited whenever his wife needed to go somewhere or needed a break. It was a real blessing to be able to do that. Yes, people are left alone sometimes to die and that’s a shame. They leave their people in nursing homes and don’t visit them either. They don’t realize that one day it will be THEIR turn and do they think anyone is going to pay attention to them then? I don’t think so.
I do consider my ministry right now as my dialysis unit. We talk to people in the waiting room, trying to bring a little fun into the situation. It’s been a blessing to be able to be there.
Amazing how the Lord can change the very worst of us (me too!)...
Don't forget that His work can be just "prayer"...don't be sad in any way. Be filled with His Love! Be filled with His Ecstasy!
I have to remind myself all the time...if His Spirit is in me (and He promises that It is)...how can there be anything but Ecstasy!!!
All who pray for those in prison...and all who pray for those who are lost...
...they are involved in prison ministry.
The Holy Spirit is the manifestation of our prayers. His Presence is more powerful than ours!
I know that, but how many of them regularly visit prisons, bring them the gospel, and HOPE for a better future. I don’t know of any in this area.
That’s so true, but I’m a hands-on kind of person and really enjoyed the times I went with my friends to the jails and prisons. Maybe some day I can.
Amen. There is NONE righteous, no not ONE. That includes ALL of us, LOL.
I was always touch by the holiness of that time.
I tried to get a prison ministry with a local priest (Catholic) but he couldn't find a way. I understand in that I am not Catholic and not a priest and accordingly couldn't receive, even less offer...communion.
But I still pray for them (and myself...the worst of all) and feel confident that the power of prayer injects the Holy Spirit into that prison.
On another issue, I am so amazed that David Berkowitz (Son of Sam) is born again. You can see it in his face.
Forgiveness is not something one can fake. And there is a holiness about his demeanor.
This is a powerful thing (our God)...certainly Creator. But even more important...a Forgiver.
I don't know how to express it very well, but we are so lucky to know and have Him.
He is our Ecstasy...he raises us from the dead.
God bless you, Mary! See you up there!
Yes, you CAN see the countenance of Son of Sam and how it changed from before he received Christ and after. It’s really amazing. Change really shows on a person, especially the most wretched of us all. I see it in his eyes.
How fortunate you were to have had a dad like that, one who cared about these people. My son is a corrections officer. I should ask him if he knows of any group that comes into his facility.
Thank you for your wonderful testimony. Yes, I WILL see you up there. Isn’t it wonderful to have the assurance of our salvation? God bless you.