The History of Dismas House
Dismas House was founded in 1959 by a Jesuit Priest, Father Charles “Dismas” Clark, and a Jewish criminal lawyer, Morris Shenker. Father Clark grew up in an environment of helping those less fortunate than he, and had the idea of starting a halfway house for ex-convicts, but lacked the means to finance it.
Later that year, Clark received permission from the Missouri Jesuit Province to open a halfway house. Shenker offered financial assistance and bought the former Jefferson school building at 905 Cole Street for $42,000 from the St. Louis Board of Education. Clark and Shenker renovated the school into a home for sixty men. They named it “Dismas House” after St. Dismas, the good thief who died next to Jesus. In spite of its name, and Father Clark’s priesthood, the house was non-sectarian.
Father Clark and Dismas House received a lot of publicity, not all of it favorable. He received his greatest notoriety after the release of the movie, “The Hoodlum Priest.” United Artists produced the movie and Don Murray played the part of Clark. Location shots were filmed in St. Louis and the premiere of the film opened at the Loew’s State Theater on February 28, 1961.
America’s Original “Halfway” House
Dismas House was built on the belief that man can reform; with faith that he can be forgiven; with hope that he will accept the truth of his crime and the necessity of his punishment, and still believe that life holds a promise. However, none of this is possible without the grace of God. Dismas House is a non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization. Income is derived from contracts with the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. Dismas House has been a refuge for over 10,000 clients. Halfway Houses have become an integral part of the U.S. criminal justice system. Dismas House responds to the needs of its clients by addressing the “Total Man.”
After graduating from high school, Father Clark’s goal was to become a Jesuit priest. Father Clark achieved his goal in June l932. His first assignment was at the St. Louis University High School. Morris Shenker, co-founder of Dismas House, was an immigrant from Russia who came to St. Louis in pursuit of an education as a lawyer.
He was admitted to St. Louis University. It was there he came in contact with Father Clark and became interested in his crusade for helping ex-offenders. Father Clark for many years had the idea of starting a Halfway House for ex-convicts but could not find a means of financing it. His newly found friendship with Morris Shenker, however, proved to be very valuable.
Although Father Clark was a well-known and respected priest in the community, there was strong opposition to the opening of Dismas House for ex-offenders at that time. Father Clark and Morris Shenker succeeded in opening Dismas Halfway House in 1959. The name was derived from the thief, St. Dismas, who died on the cross at the time of the Crucifixion of Christ.
When Father Clark died in 1963, Father Fred Zimmerman became Executive Director and remained in that capacity until his retirement in 1989. Father Joseph M. Kohler then took over as Executive Director until he retired in 2003, ending the period of time when Dismas House was associated with the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Dismas House of St. Louis has operated as an independent secular organization ever since.
“Hoodlum Priest” and “The Rat Pack”
In 1961, a movie called the “Hoodlum Priest’‘ was released in efforts to portray the true work of Father Clark. “Hoodlum Priest” premiered in Saint Louis on February 28, 1961.The movie, filmed in the slums and alleys of St. Louis, went on to be one of the top 10 films of 1961. Despite some belief that the movie exploited a good cause, it gave impetus to the Halfway House movement.
In 1965, “Live In St. Louis” hosted by the great Johnny Carson was in effort to raise money for the halfway house. The 1965 benefit was a proven success due to the efforts of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.
In 1972, Dismas House moved to 5025 Cote Brilliante. Dismas House continues the philosophy of Father Clark: Rehabilitation takes place in society, not behind bars.
Dismas House was built on the belief that man can reform; with faith that he can be forgiven; with hope that he will accept the truth of his crime and the necessity of his punishment, and still believe that life holds a promise. However, none of this is possible without the grace of God. Dismas House is a non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization. Income is derived from contracts with the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
Dismas House has been a refuge for 10,000 plus clients. Halfway Houses have become an integral part of the U. S. criminal justice system. Dismas House responds to the needs of its clients by addressing the “Total Man”. It acknowledges the physical, mental, spiritual, and psychological needs of each client and works toward assisting the client in fulfilling those needs with God’s help and the client’s own willingness to change.