I 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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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