Book review: “Gates of Dannemora” by John L. Bonn

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Book review: “Gates of Dannemora” by John L. Bonn

bonn --- gates of dannemoreI think I was 12 when I read John L. Bonn’s Gates of Dannemora. That’s more than a half century ago. The Second Vatican Council was about to start, and I was in eighth grade, planning to go into a high school seminary.

Since then, every once in a while, I’d think of the novel, but my memory was fuzzy. I could remember that it was about a modern-day prison in New York State and somehow about the “Good Thief” who was one of the two men crucified with Jesus. And that its short title included a long proper name that might have begun with a “D.”

Recently, after it came to mind yet again, I wondered what it was about the book that kept it bouncing around my head.

I went on the internet, employed some of the research skills I’d developed in a long career as a reporter, and, fairly quickly, found the title and ordered a copy of Gates of Dannemora.

The 12-year-old me

I could see immediately some of the elements of the novel that would have attracted the 12-year-old me.

A young priest, Father Ambrose “Steve” Hyland, is the newly assigned Catholic chaplain at the Clinton state prison in the village of Dannemora, N.Y., high up near Canada, so far from anything that it’s known as Siberia. He’s there, it seems, for getting in trouble with church authorities for being a bit too hip and with it. In fact, early on, he sees himself as, in a way, just another inmate:

He smiled suddenly, thinking of himself as “Steve Hyland, also known as Ambrose — height, 6 feet, 2, prisoner 33,656, Clinton Prison, Dannemora, New York. Convicted — ”

Convicted of being an ecclesiastical Robin Hood, for making converts in locker rooms and on golf courses, for having ideas about liturgy, for having too many friends, for having rebuilt a church. Found guilty. A prisoner.

Hyland nyt headshot -- largerThe young priest as hero, as rabble-rouser — what boy entering the seminary in those years didn’t harbor such a dream?

The cardinal and the chaplain

It was around this time that I devoured the Henry Morton Robinson novel The Cardinal (published in 1950, just a year before Gates of Dannemora). Just gobbled it up. And waited for and then watched with rapt attention the 1963 movie it inspired, starring ruggedly handsome Tom Tryon.

It told the story of Stephen Fermoyle from a blue-collar Irish family, like me, who is ordained a priest and moves up the ecclesiastic ladder — standing up, along the way, to such evil forces as the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazis — to become a cardinal. Which, for a Catholic boy in mid-century America, was just as good as and probably better than becoming a U.S. Senator.

The Cardinal made a much deeper impression on me, in part, because of the movie — I own VHS and DVD copies of the film — but also, in part, because it was a simple Horatio Alger saga.

Gates of Dannemora was a lot more complicated.

Not really a novel

For one thing, though I didn’t realize it at the time, it was a novel that wasn’t a novel. What I mean is that it was akin to the docudramas that have been a staple of movie theaters and television networks since the 1970s.

Like many of today’s films labeled “based on a true story,” Gates of Dannemora told the real-life tale of a real-life Father Hyland. The facts about Clinton prison were correct. So were the details of Hyland’s quixotic but ultimately successful effort to build a Catholic church inside the walls.

Bonn, with the extensive help of Hyland, made up scenes and dialogue to convey the feel of Hyland’s work with the inmates, and created many composite or fictionalized characters for the convicts whose names he could not or preferred not to use.

As I say, I didn’t realize this when I was 12. I got the book as a hand-me-down from my Uncle Eddie and my mom. It didn’t have a dust jacket, or I probably would have figured out its roots in reality since Hyland’s photo is on the back of the jacket. As far as I knew, it was just a novel.

A bumpy read

And it was a novel that I probably felt didn’t move very smoothly.

Hyland and Bonn go out of their way to grapple with such difficult subjects as rehabilitation versus punishment, cellblock conversions, repeat offenders, the reality of evil, violence, the criminal mind and religious faith.

(Bonn, by the way, was also a priest, a Jesuit poet, writer and teacher. There was no indication of that in the book itself or on the dust jacket. One of my internet searches turned that up.)

Once Hyland and the inmates have built their church, a recurring theme in the book is Hollywood’s efforts to work out a deal with the priest to make a story of his life at the prison. Each proposal is more clichéd and absurd than the last one.

His say

Gates of Dannemora is an effort to give Hyland his say. Essentially, his message is that the building of the church (which takes place midway through the book) is not an end but a beginning of his work.

dismas church dedication --- nyt --- 8.29.1941---cDuring the dedication of the structure, Hyland looks out onto the faces of the convicts:

As if a spotlight played upon them individually, he saw them. He knew so many of them now — hundreds, he realized — better than any other man would ever know them. Their faces were shining in the afternoon sunlight. They were looking at the church — their church, which they had built themselves, the first ever within prison walls. It was theirs. And it would go on. And their lives would go on, but the church was a means, not an end. They were the purpose of it.

dismas church dedication --- nyt --- 8.29.1941---dThe final third of the book deals with his attempts, generally stymied, to find ways to help the men spend their time in prison learning to be better people — through such things as education and vocational training — and to develop programs, services and even a religious order to support those leaving Dannemora and making the transition to the everyday world.

Those efforts don’t come to much. The prison administration turns on Hyland. And, by book’s end, he’s just trying to keep on keeping on.

Another thing I didn’t know at the time I first read the book was that, two years after its publication, Hyland was reassigned to a parish in Chateaugay, N. Y., and, a year after that, he died at the age of 54. (Again, thanks internet.)

Some of the frustration he must have felt — Bonn too — at the end of his time at Dannemora comes through in that final section of the book.

Vatican II

Re-reading the book nearly 60 years after his death, I found myself irritated at many points by Hyland’s pre-Vatican II theology (which is certainly unfair since he was, after all, a pre-Vatican II priest). After coming across many ex-cons leading seedy lives in New York City, he prays, “O God, give them the gift of fear!”

The Second Vatican Council was a turning away from a religion of fear and a God of fear.

Still, there was something inherently good in the work Hyland did to help prisoners find hope and community and character while locked away from society. As he tells one set of Hollywood producers:

Here’s what you must tell people: that men can come back, that some of them don’t, but that men can. They can come back only by believing in the dignity of their own creation, and they can’t believe that unless they believe that God gave them this dignity, gave them personal lives that are important — at least to God.

Even more, there was something inherently right in his proto-Vatican II belief that the construction of a church isn’t the making of a church.

The church, he says, is not the structure but the men.

Father Hyland didn’t live to see the Second Vatican Council. Had he, I think he would have found a lot to like in its fresh person-centered theology.

Patrick T. Reardon


  1. Rev. Dr. Karl J. Robinson says:

    I was the Protestant Chaplain at Clinton Correctional Facility from 1988-1991. I spent many days preaching from the pulpit at St. Dismas. It was a wonderful experience–my first full time pastorate.

  2. Lynn McDonald says:

    How did Father Highland die…my dad was an alterboy with him in St Mary’s of Ticonderoga, Ny

  3. Sean says:

    According to the coroner’s report December 15, 1954 he did not die from a heart attack. His badly burned body was found in his car in the Schroon Lake area. Cause of death was ruled smoke inhalation. Fire possibly caused by a lighted cigar. For more information like this search our free archives at
    www. myhistorymatters.con

  4. George Egan says:

    As an undergraduate student at Fairfield University, Fairfield, Ct, Fr. John Bonn, author of “Gates of Donnemora” was my professor of English Literature following his chaplaincy at Donnemora Prison and his authoring the book. The legend then was an escaped prisoner from Donnemora had taken refuge with Fr. Bonn in his onsite campus quarters. The FBI arrived only to find the prisoner had vacated the campus.

    • Patrick T. Reardon says:

      George, thanks for the story. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true. In light of the recent prison break of the two murderers with the help of prison workers, the story has an additional edge to it.

  5. We shudder and recoil at the evil shuttered behind walls and bars, terrified when it “escapes,” seeping outward into town and country. Yet we don’ see it seeping from within our own souls from within the prison each inhabits, the escape from which each vainly attempts to overleap via a thousand habits, addictions, employments, amusements and pastimes. All things are metaphors. Rejoice not that the escapees have been foiled in their attempts to uncage themselves, rather grieve that the vast majority cannot, has not and will not see the inner meaning of their own “prison,” save for the scant few who have barely managed to do so, and that solely by grace. “We have escaped as a bird from the snare of the fowlers” (Ps. 123:7). All things are indeed metaphors.

  6. Carl D. Sutter says:

    My brother and I were both christened with Dismas as our middle name. Our parents had a chance meeting with Fr. Ambrose Hyland and had a copy of the book. They also had in their papers a newspaper clipping of his obtituary and with his picture ( looking slightly older than the photo above).
    I was born in 1948. Unknown to me is the reason that my parents prayed to St. Dismas. They told me their prayer had been answered. Apparently, they received a miracle finding resolution to their problem and named both of us after St. Dismas. They expressed a deep faith that he had intervened on their behalf. I know my parents donated to Fr. Hyland. We would regularly say the prayer to St. Dismas and we both have worn his medal around our necks our whole life.
    Perhaps the story of the Good Thief is apocryphal, perhaps not. We all know another parable, profound and heart warming, of the Prodigal Son. I choose to believe the story in St. Luke’s Gospel.

  7. Carl D Sutter says:

    Glad that I found your site. I will check out some of your writing. My reading profile tends toward spirituality.

  8. Kelley Bischoffer says:

    Does anyone know if there is a list of inmates that helped build the church?

  9. Steve Van Deusen says:

    As a relative of Father Hyland it has been rumored for years in the family that Father Hyland was murdered. That he knew to much about prison life and the prisoners themselves. His progressive views about rehabilation of prisoners was not well recieved within the prison system. He was buried in a leaded line coffin becasuse the body was so badly burned, and the car was almost incinerated. That doesn’t happen from a cigar. Apartantly somebody or somebodies wanted to make sure that movie was never made. He was only 54 years old.

    • Patrick T. Reardon says:

      I don’t know anything about that, but the circumstances were pretty strange. Thanks for your comment.

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