December 19, 1924. “The Eastern Penitentiary witnessed one of its strangest, most moving ceremonies Saturday. In the prison chapel, candles burned against the background of a tall crucifix, and flowers decked the altar. Before the altar there ranged, in the garb of the prison and with heads bowed, thirty-two men. Beside each stood one of Philadelphia’s substantial citizens. Pacing the line, in his ecclesiastical robes, stood the Rt. Rev. Michael J. Crane, Catholic Auxiliary Bishop of Philadelphia.” (and Second Pastor of SFDS).
“Then, as the ancient hymns of repentance, charity and forgiveness the Church were sung by yet other prisoners in the choir, the Bishop passed along the line and administered the Sacrament of Confirmation to the thirty-two men who are expiating crimes against the State. An organ and a violin, also played by prisoners, softened still more the Latin chants.”
“If here behind prison walls you have found faith, then your imprisonment has been a blessing in disguise,” said the Bishop simply, when the ceremony was ended. Later, the prisoners presented Bishop Crane with a table and smoking set they had made themselves in the prison shops. Ho told them he would put them in his room as one of his chief treasures.”
“The thirty-two citizens of Philadelphia are representatives of Catholic lay organizations here. They were recruited by Father Francis Hoey, chaplain at the penitentiary, and they have promised to visit their individual charges for whom they stood sponsor, as long as they remain in the prison, and to find Jobs for them when they are released.”
“Organizations which the thirty-two laymen represent are: The American Society for Visiting Catholic Prisoners, the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic Temperance Society, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and the Holy Name Society.”
This evocative story turned up in the archives of the Catholic News Service. A separate Catholic Standard and Times article filled in a few more details: seventeen of the thirty-two confirmands were converts to the Catholic faith, due mostly to the missionary efforts of the “young chaplain there, the Rev. Francis P.K. Hoey.” About two hundred prisoners attended the service.
The Confirmation, though not the first there, was still significant. Eastern State Penitentiary records note that when the prison opened in 1829, it “was the world’s first true ‘penitentiary,’ a prison designed to inspire penitence, or true regret, in the hearts of prisoners.” Early prisoners were kept in solitary confinement, but that proved too strict. The state ruled in 1913 that inmates should be grouped “for the several purposes of worship, labor, learning, and recreation.” In 1914 a “storage room of Industrial building fitted up, in service as chapel” and on 5 Apr 1914: “the prisoners were for the first time in the history of the Institution allowed outside their cells for the purpose of religious worship.” The first Catholic Mass was held Easter Sunday, April 12, 1914, and by 1918, the “chapel and assembly room abundantly justifies itself for church.”
By the time Bishop Crane visited the facility, in 1924, living conditions were much improved. A January report that year, noted “Inmates eat for first time in group dining halls. Tablecloths were provided on Sundays and holidays, and the holiday decorations were described as a ‘morale building factor;’” and by April, “clergymen of all denoms have unlimited privileges of visitation…” and the various chaplains had their own offices.
We have no record of whether Bishop Crane ever returned, but other bishops did, through the decades, bringing confirmation to inmates up until the prison closed in 1971. Abandoned for twenty years afterwards, it then reopened as a museum and historic (and Halloween) attraction in 1991. Today, one of its treasured features is an impressive series of murals, created in the Catholic chaplain’s office in the 1950s by a devout, self-taught artist inmate, and recently restored.