Religion: Christ the Prisoner

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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.

Chaplain Breitfeller says that everyone at Lorton worked on the project in one way or another from October 1956 to last week's dedication. His first recruit was one Farmer C. Thomas, doing a 17-year stretch for forging $100 bills, who had once taken a mail-order course in architectural engineering. When the priest asked him to design the chapel, Thomas, an atheist, protested that he had never been in a church in his life. Under Father Breitfeller's influence and instruction, he became a Catholic.

Negro Williston Knorl, serving ten years for robbery, sculptured a life-sized crucifix, using as model his friend, Negro Herbie Hall, a murderer sentenced to life. When the figure of Christ was finished, Hall painted it with gruesome bruises, cuts, and trickles of blood. "We read all the books we could find to see how Christ must have been," says Painter Hall, a Moslem. "It's a little grotesque to some people, I guess, but it's real. We knew it wouldn't be a pretty thing, but a person being crucified wouldn't be pretty." Extra touches of realism: dirty toenails (from walking barefoot through the dust) and a dozen or so flies, bought by Father Breitfeller at a novelty store. "Some like that touch and some don't," he reports.