History & Founder
The first Dismas House was founded in 1974 in Nashville, Tennessee by Father Jack Hickey, O.P., a Chaplain at Vanderbilt University, together with student members involved in the Vanderbilt University Prison Project. Having worked as volunteers inside the prison, they recognized the great need for a supportive community when prisoners transition from prison to the outside world. They realized that many prisoners had no place to live and little support once released. Because of this, they created Dismas House and invited former prisoners to live with them. This integrated model has proven effective for former prisoners, students and the community.
It is significant that Dismas House was not born of a social scientist’s theories. It was not a sociologist who conducted research and based on that research developed a new treatment methodology that led to the creation of Dismas House. It took some ordinary people, with hearts open enough to enter into relationships of caring with society’s unwanted, that has made Dismas House a reality.
Dismas of Vermont presently has four residential programs. Buell Street Dismas, in Burlington, was established in 1986 and Rutland Dismas House opened in 1990. In May 2008, we opened East Allen Dismas in Winooski. The fourth Dismas House, in Hartford opened in March, 2014.
Named for the repentant thief who was crucified on the cross next to Jesus, Dismas House represents forgiveness and reconciliation. While Dismas House takes its name from the “Good Thief” and has always enjoyed the support of many different religious communities, it is not a religious organization.
In 1983 Rita McCaffrey, for over 12 years the Coordinator of the Thresholds/Decisions prison volunteer program, and her husband, Vermont District Court Judge Francis McCaffrey, visited the original Dismas House in Nashville, Tennessee. Later, they visited other existing Dismas House programs in Tennessee and Ireland. Impressed by the effectiveness of these programs, and convinced of the need for a similar program in Vermont, they returned with a determination to establish a Dismas House in Burlington.
A task force composed of many dedicated prison volunteers enthusiastically began meeting in March, 1985 and a Board of Directors was established in April, 1986. Supported by prisoners, students, volunteers and the Department of Corrections, Burlington Dismas House formally opened its doors at 96 Buell Street in Burlington in September, 1986. Rutland Dismas House opened a few years later, in September of 1990.
In 2004 it became increasingly obvious that there was a shortage of housing for former prisoners. The Governor’s Commission on Prison Overcrowding published their findings that there were many men and women who were still in prison simply for lack of housing. After three years of planning and collaboration with Vermont Department of Corrections, Burlington Housing Authority, and Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, Burlington Dismas House opened East Allen Dismas, providing an additional 11 beds. It is located at 103 East Allen Street, Winooski. Hartford Dismas House, supported by Upper Valley communities in New Hampshire and Vermont, opened in 2014.
Since opening in 1986, over 1,600 men and women have lived at Dismas House. Over the years, the program has become a valuable part of the community.