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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.
E-mail Suzanne Moore at: email@example.com