PENNSYLVANIA From murderer to monk -- a tale of redemption

After killing his wife and unborn child, Jim Townsend later found peace with himself.
UNIONTOWN, Pa. (AP) -- Jim Townsend will tell you his life story is one of loss and redemption, beginning with the murder of his wife and leading to his transformation as a Capuchin Franciscan monk.
Townsend, 78, said he grew up abused and neglected in Bristol, outside Philadelphia, and eventually moved to western Pennsylvania, where he met and married Alice Moss.
But Townsend grew angry when he felt she was rejecting him while she was pregnant. Fueled by drink, he shot her in the head Nov. 13, 1947, in the kitchen of their home in Ohiopyle, Fayette County.
He pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison. He was 20 years old.
Townsend initially struggled in prison, but he would find forgiveness and change, eventually leaving prison and counseling prisoners.
"You ask for forgiveness and you get it," Townsend said. "Jesus didn't go up on the cross for nothing. They hung the letters INRI above him. That means King of the Jews. But a friend told me it also means 'I Never Regretted It.' He never regretted what he did for us."
One of the first things Townsend did at his Pittsburgh prison was to punch another prisoner in the jaw, unprovoked, to show he wasn't to be messed with.
Gradual change
He continued to mouth off and provoke fights until he learned about the possibility of being sent to a less restrictive prison -- Rockview, in Bellefonte.
He began to attend Mass and got a job in the chaplain's office. But it was just an act so he could earn a job as a truck driver to escape, he said.
Still, he was reading religious books and felt a connection to Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and spiritual writer.
"As I read, I began thinking, maybe if I ever get out of here, I'd ask to be a Trappist monk. ... My big change came at two o'clock in the morning. I cried my head off. I recognized that I couldn't do what I was doing anymore," he said.
After telling his priest of his conversion, Townsend said visions of his wife that appeared in nightmares stopped.
"I would see her holding a little boy. She didn't say a thing. When I accepted the Lord, she said, 'We're waiting for you,'" said Townsend. "I have never seen her since, and that's been more than 30 years."
Townsend was paroled in 1968 after serving 20 years and approached the Capuchin Franciscans in Pittsburgh.
"When Jim came to the door, all the red flags were flying, but his simplicity struck me. He was so honest," said the Rev. Lester Knoll, who was responsible for screening candidates.
Townsend entered the order and made his final vows Feb. 9, 1976. He's worked in western Pennsylvania, Maryland and Ohio. Though he has retired to Herman, Butler County, where the St. Mary Friary is located, he still spends one week each October counseling prisoners at Rockview.
"I'll do that until I can't," Townsend said. "The first time going back, it was tough. But as I got to talking to people and they were trusting me, I thought, this is a golden opportunity and I can't let it go by."
"God does work, and Jim is a great witness that people can change," said the Rev. Mr. Knoll, who recently persuaded an author to write a book about Townsend's life. "The Prisoner" will be published March 1 by Paulist Press.

Don't Miss a Story

Sign up for our newsletter to receive daily news directly in your inbox.