Dismas House is a residential community where college students
live in community with men and women
transitioning from incarceration to life in society. It was conceived in 1974 in Nashville, Tennessee by Reverend Jack Hickey, a Catholic Chaplain at Vanderbilt University. While he and a group of students were volunteering in prison they got to know many of the men there. They began to realize that when it was time to leave prison some men were fortunate enough to have a home where they belonged and a family to welcome and support them. They also recognized, however, that there was a large number of men who had no home-no place where they belonged- and no family to welcome them. Because of this Fr. Hickey and several students decided to live together and invite people leaving prison to live with them. Their house, named Dismas after the good thief who died on the cross next to Jesus, would be a place where former prisoners would know they belonged, and their Dismas community would be one of welcome and support.
The reason for creating community is to accomplish Dismas' mission of reconciliation. Community is fundamentally about relationship. And it is precisely the relationship between offender and their community that is broken, first by the crime committed and subsequently by the resulting incarceration. In reconciliation, wholeness is restored to the former prisoner and to society.
It is significant that Dismas House was not born of a social scientist's theories. Rather, Dismas House was born of relationship. It is in relationships with prisoners that Fr. Jack and the students learned of this great need for home and community. It was neither scientific nor technological breakthrough that led to the creation of Dismas House; it took some ordinary people with hearts open enough to enter into relationships of caring with a group of society's unwanted.
Life at Dismas House follows the natural rhythms of family life. During the day, people go to work and to school; in the evening all come together to share the evening meal, and afterward there is relaxing, socializing and studying into the night. The evening meal is the chief community building experience of the day. One of the things that makes it so is the presence of volunteer cooks, and as they come month after month become an important part of the Dismas community. If the residential community can be likened to the nuclear family, the volunteer cooks are the extended family: the cousins, aunts, uncles, etc.
While Dismas House has always enjoyed the support of so many different religious communities, it is not religious organization.