It All Started with a Question: What If?

In 1974, Father Jack Hickey and a group of Vanderbilt University students came up with an idea. What if, they asked, we could create a safe haven where we could share a home with former offenders transitioning out of prison — a place that would build a deeper sense of community for both parties and would help former offenders find supportive services, obtain jobs and become full and successful participants in the larger society?

As Father Hickey saw it, college students and former offenders are at a similar stage in life — preparing to take their place as contributors to society. He believed each could benefit and learn from the other.

As a symbol of the kind of place they envisioned, the founders looked to the name that, according to Christian tradition, was associated with the “penitent thief” who was crucified alongside Jesus and who became reconciled to God.

This vision was the genesis of Dismas House, which opened in Nashville later that year as an extension of the Vanderbilt Prison Project. After completing an internship in Nashville, a Notre Dame student introduced the United Religious Community to Dismas and, as a result, in 1986, the South Bend Dismas House opened near the University of Notre Dame campus. Across the United States and internationally, other organizations have applied the Dismas House model, which has been widely recognized for its success.