By NADIA MARIA SMITH
CS&T Staff Writer
Eastern State Penitentiary isn’t the first place you think of going to see Catholic art.
But that is exactly what was revealed to Cardinal Justin Rigali during his first visit to the historic penitentiary in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia on Thursday, Sept. 11.
Cardinal Rigali was taken to a small cluster of rooms, in a small building deep within the imposing prison walls, where the Catholic chaplain’s office used to be. It was from that room that the archdiocesan and Jesuit priests used to provide spiritual guidance to a large Catholic inmate population. And the walls are dotted with religious murals.
“Someone asked me what I was expecting when I came here, well it certainly wasn’t this,” Cardinal Rigali said during his tour of the prison. “I really didn’t know what to expect so I came here with an open mind. This has been an extraordinary experience.”
The murals are the work of inmate Lester Smith, a self-taught artist and Catholic convert. Smith had been serving a jail term in Lackawanna County Jail in Scranton on a concealed weapons charge when he was transferred to Philadelphia to stand trial on four charges of armed robbery committed between 1953 and 1954.
His accomplice was sentenced to a maximum of 10 years at Eastern State; Smith was given half that sentence – as a result, in part, of the change of heart he had shown through his newfound faith and his painting.
During his time in county jail, Smith had a conversion experience and began painting.
“I used to mock the ministers and the priests, but one night I found I could not go at it alone any longer,” Smith told the Evening Bulletin in 1955. “Something strange was taking place. The walls and the bed in my room were all the same. There was nothing unusual about the faint light that filtered in. But something was different. First I cried. Then, I prayed. But when daylight came I went about my usual routine,” Smith continued.
“The next night something made me take a pencil and sketch a scene on the nearest wall. Weeks later, a man I came to know as a friend noticed the sketch and praised the work. He insisted I continue to work at the project,” he said. “The next time he came to see me he brought a set of watercolors and gave me advice from his knowledge of art.”
It was the beginning of a lifelong passion for painting and expressing his faith through art. Smith signed his artwork as Paul Martin after his two favorite saints: St. Paul the Apostle and St. Martin de Porres.
Smith spent a little over a year at Eastern State before his early release, but he left behind a window into the role of religion in the rehabilitation of inmates – including evocative images of repentance and forgiveness. He returned to his wife and four children and was never arrested again.
At Eastern State Penitentiary, which opened in 1829, inmates spent 24 hours a day in solitary confinement and were given two 30-minute breaks to work out in private outdoor areas connected to their inspanidual cells. This was quite different than the prevailing prison experience of inmates thrown together in a common holding block. The idea was that solitary confinement would provide a contemplative atmosphere of introspection that would lead to repentance and reform – as well as prevent the violence and spread of disease common in other prisons.
The Eastern State model, however, proved to be “rigid, strict and hopeless… and I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong,” according to author Charles Dickens who visited the prison in 1870. Eastern State officially abandoned the failed solitary confinement philosophy by 1913 and had done so in practice decades earlier.
On June 7, 1903, Archbishop Patrick J. Ryan confirmed 54 prisoners at Eastern State and the first Mass was celebrated on April 12, 1914, Easter Sunday, with Father James I. Maguire. Conversions at the penitentiary were a result of the priests’ ministry there since the 1870s, and of the efforts of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. In fact, the Society members were such frequent visitors to the prison that they officially formed an auxiliary organization called the American Society for Visiting Catholic Prisoners in 1897.
To keep that Catholic history alive, Eastern State is undertaking the restoration of the Catholic Chaplaincy’s office with the hope of opening the building to the public by 2010.
“I am very grateful to see the effort that is being made in order to preserve this jewel of history for Philadelphia and … the history of the Catholic Church as far as the Catholic Chaplain’s Office goes,” Cardinal Rigali said.
And noting the challenge that lies ahead for the restoration project, he referred to St. Paul for, “some very good advice that I think would be applicable to everybody, ‘Don’t grow tired of doing good.'”
To make a donation in support of the restoration of the Catholic Chaplain’s Office or to learn more about the project contact Elyssa Kane, assistant director for development at ek@EasternState.org or (215) 236-5111. To learn more about Eastern State Penitentiary visit www.EasternState.com.
CS&T staff writer Nadia Maria Smith may be reached at email@example.com or (215) 965-4614.