Beautiful Conversion Story

Bob Donaldson/Post-Gazette
Brother Jim Townsend in 2005

James Townsend was in the middle of a life sentence for homicide when he decided to con his way to freedom by faking a spiritual awakening. But soon after, he said, God conned him.

Brother Jim began working as a sacristan for the prison chaplain at Rockview State Correctional Institution in Bellefonte, hoping to secure an early release from jail. But as Brother Jim learned more about the Catholic faith, he found himself becoming a true believer. It seemed God — or “Slick,” as Brother Jim would sometimes call him — had beaten the convict at his own game, he said.

When he did win early release in 1967, Brother Jim made a beeline for the church and soon began a 40-year career in service of the Capuchin order of friars. His crime and conversion were the subjects of a 2005 book, “The Prisoner: An Invitation to Hope.”

Friends and fellow friars remember “Brother Jim,” who died Sunday at Vincentian Home in McCandless, as an example of the power of hope, faith and humor. He was 84.

“One of the ways he kept sane while in prison was to keep track of the days. If you asked how old he was now, he still wouldn’t tell you in years, he would tell you in months,” said the Rev. Lester Knoll, a lifelong friend and spiritual director to Brother Jim, laughing softly as he recalled the running joke. “He was 1,014 months old when he died.”

Brother Jim was an unlikely candidate for monastic life. The son of an abusive father who lost his money and home in the Great Depression and a chronically ill mother, Brother Jim had a rap sheet that followed him back to age 10.

The state shuttled the young Brother Jim between reform schools for more than a decade; he never graduated from high school but later earned a GED. He joined the Marine Corps and eventually settled in Pittsburgh, where he met and married Alice Moss in 1947.

Eight months after their wedding, he shot and killed his 19-year-old wife in the kitchen of their cabin near Ohiopyle. In a confession to state police, Brother Jim said he shot his wife, who was then pregnant with twins, because he felt her growing distant from him and wanted to scare her back into love.

At first, Brother Jim wanted to join the extremely strict Trappist order after his release from prison as a way to do penance for his crime. Rockview’s chaplain and other Catholic mentors directed him toward the Capuchin order, Franciscans whose order was founded to focus on inward contemplation and public service.

Father Knoll, who used to recruit and screen Capuchin candidates at the regional headquarters in Lawrenceville, said he saw “all kinds of red flags” when Brother Jim approached the order in 1970, but he soon realized Brother Jim’s interest and faith were genuine.

Brother Jim spent the early 1970s working his way through the process to become a full Capuchin brother. He relied on the handyman skills he developed in prison and did maintenance work while studying for the novitiate.

In 1973, he took his first vows to formally join the order. The warden from Rockview was present at the procession, Father Knoll said, and he made a point to thank the Capuchins for giving Brother Jim a chance.

“Jim was delighted,” Father Knoll said. “It was a great joy.”

After taking his final vows in 1976, he spent time at St. Conrad Friary in McCandless, as well as friaries in Cleveland and Annapolis, Md.

Though Brother Jim might easily have suppressed his criminal background once he was accepted into the Capuchin order, he recognized that his story — though painful to tell — could help other inmates. He conducted dozens of retreats at prisons, during which he discussed his life and faith with other prisoners serving long-term sentences.

Tom Boldin, the current chaplain at Rockview, said Brother Jim’s speeches never failed to move his inmates, with whom Brother Jim made a point of speaking one-on-one during the weeklong retreats he held at Rockview each year.

“Because they were talking to a former inmate, they were able to let their hair down, let their guard down and just be honest with him,” Mr. Boldin said. “In prison, crying is a weakness, but many people would cry with him. There was a true genuineness with him.”

In addition to ministering to adult prisoners, Brother Jim loved working with children. The young residents of Harborcreek Youth Services, a facility near Erie for juvenile offenders, were skeptical of Brother Jim when he came to speak in the 1990s, said Joe Tarquinio, then an administrator at the center. “They had never seen a brother before. They said, ‘Who’s this guy with a dress on?'” Mr. Tarquinio said.

But when Brother Jim explained his habit and told the kids about the time he spent at reform schools — including Harborcreek, where he had lived when it was Harborcreek School for Boys — they quickly warmed to him.

While staying at a Capuchin hermitage he co-founded with Father Knoll in Herman, Brother Jim was a frequent volunteer at a local elementary school.

Health problems did not stop Brother Jim from his ministry work at Rockview, where he continued to preach at the annual retreat until about five years ago. His dedication to the inmates of Rockview inspired the prison to rename the “Monsignor Walsh Award,” which honors one prisoner at a banquet at the end of the retreat each year, the “Jim Townsend Award.”

It was a special honor for Brother Jim, who had received the award when he was a Rockview inmate: The Rev. Richard Walsh was the original Rockview chaplain Brother Jim had set out to trick with his false conversion.

Brother Jim has no survivors.

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