Rev. Father Carl Breitfeller R.I.P.

Written by  //  December 21, 1991  //  Absent Friends  //  Comments Off on Rev. Father Carl Breitfeller R.I.P.

25 April 1926 – 19 December 1991

Religion: Christ the Prisoner
Friday, Sept. 22, 1961
(TIME excerpt) Dedicated last week was a new chapel that was designed by a professional forger, decorated by a two-man team composed of a thief and a murderer, and built by laborers on a wage scale that ranged from $1.20 to $7.70 a month. Its 1,000-odd congregation: inmates of the District of Columbia Reformatory (for men) at Lorton. Va.
The chapel is interdenominational, designed so that Roman Catholic, Protestant and Jewish services, each seating as many as 500, may be held simultaneously or thrown together in one big, 1,200-capacity. But the man behind it is the prison’s senior Catholic chaplain, Father Carl J. Breitfeller

October 1961
Church Is Designed by Atheist And Built by Criminals

All-faiths Chapel Built by Inmates

Library of Congress Archives
Title: Prison priest (Lorton Prison, Virginia)
Other Title: Swinging prison priest.
Creator(s): Gilbert, Douglas R., 1942-, photographer
Date Created/Published: 1964 Aug. 10 (date added to Look’s library)
Medium: 69 photographic prints (contact sheets).
2 negatives : b&w film copy negs.
Summary: Photographs show Father Carl J. Breitfeller, Catholic chaplain for prisons in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area, at Lorton Prison, Lorton, Va., and at the Women’s Reformatory at Occoquan, Va. Includes Father Breitfeller talking to male inmates at Lorton; serving mass in Lorton’s Chapel of Christ the Prisoner; with singer Ella Fitzgerald during the 9th annual jazz festival held at Lorton Prison; playing softball and talking with women at the Reformatory. Also includes Breitfeller jogging in East Potomac Park; broadcasting a radio show(?); looking at an addict’s drug paraphernalia; a few views of Fitzgerald singing at the prison concert.

August 1960
“Nation’s most unusual jazz festival.” “Talk of the music world.” These are a mere
sampling of the expressions used by the press to describe what has become known as the Lorton
Jazz Festival.
Several years ago, Sarah Vaughan inaugurated the Festival with a tremendous
performance in which she held the audience spellbound for an hour and a half. In 1957 Louie
Armstrong and his All Stars with Jack Teagarden increased the tempo set by Sarah Vaughan.
The show took on festival proportions in 1958 with the appearance of Art Blakey’s Jazz
Messengers, the Hi-Lo’s, Charlie Byrd and Trio plus the Kai Winding Septet. 1959 continued
this festival style with Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson and Trio, Stuff Smith and the Charlie Byrd
On August 11th, 1960 the Festival reached new heights with such names as the Count Basie
Band with Joe Williams, Louis Armstrong with Velma Middleton, the Lambert, Hendricks and
Ross group, the Ike Isaac Trio, the Charlie Byrd Trio and Miss Nancy Wilson. The duties of m.
c. have been masterfully handled by Felix Grant of local radio station WMAL.
The above named greats have never appeared at a festival more unique than the one at
Lorton. This annual show is attended by the 2,000 felons serving long terms in the Lorton
Reformatory. Another unusual aspect of the festival is that it is not pre-arranged or pre-staged
but rather, is spontaneously produced and directed by Fr. Carl J. Breitfeller, O.P., and his fellow
Catholic Prison Chaplains. Again, this annual show is unique in that it presents the best of jazz
exclusively — and finally, 1960 presented an innovation by introducing a comparatively new
personality to the world of jazz. This year Miss Nancy Wilson gave an impressive performance
supported by the Basie Band.
The Festival is not a coddling or pampering of prisoners but an annual reminder that
prisoners are understood and thought of as human beings. These are the things that money cannot
buy so it is only fitting that they not be obtained with money… rather, through the large and
generous heart of jazz.

September 1965
(Youngstown Ohio Valley News) The Rev. Carl J. Breitfeller, a Dominican friar who won nationwide recognition for his work among convicts at Lorton Reformatory in northern Virginia, is an assistant pastor at St. Dominic Parish in Youngstown.

29 February 1968
Newman Center Holds Symposium On Drugs
Kent’s Newman Center will sponsor “Drugs: A Symposium” at 8 p.m. Thursday. Each of the three panelists will present a 20 minute speech, to be followed by a question and answer period.
Rev. Carl Breitfeller, 0.P., a subprior of St. Dominic’s Priory in Youngstown, served 11 years as the senior Roman Catholic chaplain for the five prisons in the D.C. area.
The success of Rev. Breitfeller’s mission to the inmates many of whom were drug addicts, was described in Look magazine in 1964.

22 August 2002
Inmate Art A Remnant Of Lorton’s Past Life
(Washington Post via HighBeam Research) Sentenced in 1955 to spend five to 17 years in the District’s Lorton prison for forgery, counterfeiting and other crimes, Farmer C. Thomas might have become just another anonymous inmate, indistinguishable from the thousands of others who passed through its maximum security compound over the years.
But the career criminal with an escape attempt on his record came to the attention of a Lorton prison chaplain, Rev. Carl J. Breitfeller, for a skill Thomas had learned during a previous stint in San Quentin. Thomas had studied architectural engineering at the California penitentiary and was an accomplished draftsman.
Breitfeller asked him to design a chapel so that the 2,000 Lorton inmates would not have to use the prison auditorium for church services.
“Fine,” Thomas reportedly replied, “but I’ve never seen the inside of a church.”
More than just about any other prisoner, Thomas left his mark on the Lorton Correctional Complex: a 1,200-seat chapel covering more than 22,000 square feet and designed to accommodate three separate religious services simultaneously.
“While the credentials of the architect selected by Father Breitfeller were not impressive, the design he eventually produced was truly a masterpiece,” wrote Mary Hostetler Oakey, a former D.C. Department of Corrections employee, in “Journey From the Gallows,” a 1988 history of the District’s penal system.
Today the chapel, out of commission since the closure of the prison last year, shows signs of serious disrepair. It is one of more than 300 buildings whose fate must be decided by Fairfax County now that the federal government, completing a $4.2 million sale, has turned the 2,323-acre Lorton property over to the county.
In a ceremony dubbed “the cutting of the razor wire,” federal and county officials plan to gather at the former Lorton prison Saturday to celebrate the transfer. Most of the site is to be turned into a vast park and recreational facilities. But deciding what to do with 136 structures of historical significance is expected to take until sometime next year.
Historical groups are determined to preserve the chapel, not only for its unique design and construction (it was built entirely by inmates from bricks made in the prison’s kilns), but for the art it houses, notably a crucifix featuring a life-size figure of Christ.
The crucifix was created in 1961 by two inmates — Williston Knorl, a sculptor, and Herbert H. Hall, a painter — to represent “Christ the Prisoner,” depicting Jesus while still alive on the cross, according to a 1962 Department of Corrections pamphlet on the chapel. In a process heavy with symbolism, the two prisoners made a plaster of Paris cast of the body of an inmate who had been condemned to death (his sentence was subsequently commuted) and created a sculpture that they attached to a carved oak cross.
The Department of Corrections is unable to say what happened to Thomas, Knorl or Hall, and the name of the prisoner who loaned his body to the project has been lost to history.

Joe Harper Returns: Lorton Reformatory Inmate Tells His Story
A Different View of Lorton Prison
December 21, 2011
… Back at the Reformatory, Harper’s supervisors were disappointed with him, and reassigned him to the electrical shop where he became the after-duty-hours and weekend electrician. That meant often working alone or with little, if any, supervision. It was during this stretch that he earned his GED and again filled his hours with productive activities.
Harper became the prison DJ and had a budget to purchase records which were played over the prisons radio system. He was also befriended by the prison chaplain, a jazz enthusiast, who organized the jazz festivals that brought the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Nancy Wilson and Frank Sinatra to perform for the prisoners.

Comments are closed.