By CECIL — NORTHCOTE
CROWDS are pouring into the London Pavilion to see the filmed life of a remarkable man I met only a few weeks ago in the
back streets of St. Louis, Mo.
In a building that was once a schoolhouse a 59-year-old Jesuit lives with 60 convicted criminals. all of them out on parole for good conduct.
He calls his home Dismas House after the penitent thief who was crucified with Christ on Calvary, and he himself has taken the name as his own, Fr. Dismas Clark.
For 20 years Fr. Clark—the 13th child of Irish immigrants— has been interested in convicts, and particularly in what happens to them after they leave prison. He has tramped through the prisons of America making lists of good-conduct men, learning about their life and their hopes.
He knows about the inside life of American prisons and has no high opinion of his country's attitude to the convicted man after he has paid for his crimes and wants to start life again.
This mild, small-made man, living under the rigid personal discipline of the Society of Jesus, likes the big-crime boys, the ones who go for the big prizes, and the ones who in fits of passion shoot and often kill. As I sat talking to him he introduced me to a murderer. a car thief. a forger. and a plain oldfashioned burglar.
These men, he believes, are made of the tough stuff which is capable of reform and a completely new start. Everyone of them knows that the patron saint of Fr, Clark and his house is Dismas the Penitent thief— the only man ever promised a place in the Kingdom of Heaven. The criminals Fr, Clark says he is unable to welcome to Dismas House are the sexmaniacs who need psychiatric treatment, and the petty offenders who are in and out of the local gaol for thieving and mild offences. He reserves the right to welcome the men he thinks are capable of going straight—provided they can get work and are given a fair chance by the community.
Fr, Cl I k's employment bureau for ex-convicts is one of the most successful in the United States. Employers in the St. Louis area trust the Dismas men, and out of a thousand men he has found jobs for only three have been failures.
He says that the United States spends millions on hunting down criminals and in punishing them, but hardly anything on helping them to get a new start in life. This is where Dismas House comes in.
I was shown by the ex-car thief into the big dormitories, the library. the kitchens, the dining room, the barber's shop and the lounge. Here a parole man can live while he gets a job and gradually re-establishes himself, St. Louis people have been rather frightened at this congregation of criminals and have suggested that one day they will fight their way out and shout Fr. Clark, too. But the little man smiles He calls them "my men ". and the murderer muttered to me that he didn't know much about the God Fr. Clark worshipped, but he did know. Fr. Clark.
But the strange story of Dismas House does not all centre round Fr. Clark and his reclaimed criminals. The house is just over 12 months old in its present form and cost over £14,000 to put in shape, Dedicated to a life of poverty himself, Fr. Clark turned to a Jewish lawyer. Mr. Morris Shenker, who had made a good deal of money out of prosecuting criminals. He inspired him with the vision of reclaiming criminals instead of convicting them and got the Jewish lawyer to buy the old schoolhouse and equip it as home for prisoners.
The Jesuit and the Jew formed a compact to turn thieves and murderers into penitents, and Fr. Clark believes that St. Dismas—who hangs, life size. at the entrance to the house—must have had a lot to do with the strange partnership,
In the chapel of the House. the Christian cross and the Jewish Star of David shine out in token of the partnership between the priest and the lawyer, but Fr. Clark celebrates Mass there only once a year. He is anxious not to make his men feel that they are to he preached at or compelled to believe in his particular Christian tradition.
He is ready to deal with men as they are and has few rules for their conduct. Dismas House is an " honourable society ", and the employers of St. Louis know that a Dismas man is one they can trust.
I came out into the rainy St. Louis night and climbed into the Dismas station-wagon, driven by the ex-car thief. He talked of Fr. Clark in a sort of otherworldly manner. " You see ", he said. "Fr. Clark straightened me out. and helped me to get started again after 10 years in and out of gaol".
I was not surprised that he refused to take a tip for his trouble. " You see, I belong to St. Dismas".