Witnesses from the Prison

- God's Gangster 

- A Saint who killed 

For John Pridmore, violence was a way of life. You name it, he'd done it - drugs (taking and dealing), intimidation, racketeering, debt collecting, protection and last, but by no means least, violence. But his life changed when he met Christ.

Leaving his life of crime he embraced the call to "Come, follow me". Until recently he was National Publicity Officer for Youth 2000.

He travelled the country giving his witness in schools. He is currently working as a Youth Worker in the Archdiocese of Liverpool. John tells his remarkable and inspiring story. 


God's Gangster

East End

I grew up in the East End. My parents separated when I was 10 and I went to live with my dad. I loved my mum and dad and I was crushed by their divorce. I was only 10, but I can remember making a conscious decision that I wouldn't love any more. I reasoned that if I didn't love, then I wouldn't get hurt.

I started stealing when I was 11 (mainly from my dad). I quickly moved on to shoplifting. I began to steal because I felt angry at not receiving the attention I felt I deserved. I guess I just wanted someone to take notice of the pain  I was in. When I was 15 I was sent to a detention centre after breaking into my own school sports centre. The regime was harsh. Lots of marching, getting up early, not to mention short hair. Actually I loved it. It brought some security and stability into my insecure and unstable life. I took to it like a duck to water.


Leaving home

On my release I decided to leave home for good and so I moved in qith my elder brother. I got a job in a radio shop in Walthamstow. Before long I was back to my old tricks - putting my hand into my employer's till. I began to drink heavily and found a ready market for the gear I was nicking. When I was 16 I was involved in a motorbike crash; In was in hospital for several months. I had this big hole in my heart which I was desperately trying to fill. I thought money would do it. I foundsome solace in a kind of self-hatred. I had a very negative self-image. I was put down a lot as a kid and as a result had very little self-confidence.

Once out of hospital I went back to stealing. I was smoking dope and sniffing glue as well. Eventually I was caught and charged with theft. I was sent to a youth prison. This was a difficult time for me. I was on a 23-hour lock-up (because my leg from the motorbike crash had not yet healed and was still infected). I was left by myself for long periods. I didn't cope well with this - I didn't like myself or my own company. In prison I became bitter and angry. I thought about killing myself. I felt whatever you wanted you just took, no one gave you anything.

The spiral down

When I came out of prison I decided to become a bouncer in the West End. I was involved in backstage security at the Queen and Simply Red concerts. It didn't pay that well, but it was a way into the more lucrative security world. I did this for a year and I was working on all kinds of concerts and venues — Springsteen, boxing at the Albert Hall, Queen, Amnisty International, and  Run the World. I was beginning to earn big money. The form was that the punters had to give  the bouncers a bung so they could go back-stage.

After a year I decided there was more money to be made bouncing in clubs - by now I had a lot of contacts . The first club job I worked at was in Chingford. I was running the door on my own.

I began to get into heavier crime. I was dealing in dope, cocaine, ecstasy and sulphate. I also dabbled in the blsck market and forgery (MOT’s, taxs discs). I was awash in a sea of petty crime. I got involved with an East End hard man and my own reputation as a hard man was growing. I got involved in a range of gangland activities. I carried a machete, ammonia and CS gas canister. On some jobs I would take a gun but, praise  God, I never had to use it. Once I went into a club and the ownersaid something I didn't like. We went and obliterated the place with golf clubs.

This is the cover of the book about John's story, written with the freelance writer Grag Watts and pubblished by Darton-Longman+Todd, London

I began to smoke crack (heroin). I was making lots of money (around £ 5.000 a week) through dealing and bouncing. But inside I was a mass of contradictions. You know in John's Gospel where Martha says that Lazarus isn't just dead, He's stinking (John 11:39) ? Well, I wasn't just dead, I was stinking. Once I hit this guy smack on the jaw with a knuckleduster. He just lay there in his   own blood. The only thought that went through my mind was I might get 10 years for this.

This incident was a turning point in my life. I knew something was seriously wrong. I didn't like what I'd become, but I didn't know any other way. I came in touch with how unhappy I really was - I felt a great sense  of emptiness. I was so good at cunning myself that I was happy. But I wasn't at all. I was scared. I was looked upon as being one of the hard men of London and the reality was I was scared. The more scared you are. the more violent you become. On one level I had everything. I had a BMW, a Mercedes, designer clothes, and money to gamble - I'd gamble £ 1,000 in an afternoon and think nothing of it. As soon as I'd get it I'd throw it away.



I was beginning to seriously question the way I was living. I started really questioning what my life was all about. One night I came home. Nothing particularly important had happened. In many ways it had been an uneventful day. As I sat in my front room I became aware of a voice  speaking to me in my heart. The voice convicted me of the bad things I had done. I remember getting up and this voice was still speaking. I can't explain it but I realized it was coming from within and I knew it was God, there was no doubt in my own mind who it was. I knelt down and prayed for another chance. I know it sounds daft, but I thought I was dying. I was just praying and crying and asking God for forgiveness.

It was an incredible experience. I felt lifted up and refreshed. I walked out of my flat and said a prayer right from my heart. I said to God, " Up to now all I've ever done is take from you, now I want to give you something back". As I said that prayer, for the first time in my life I felt the Holy Spirit and a great sense of peace and forgiveness. I went straight to see my mum. She told me thet she had prayed for me every day of my life.

After this I found that I wanted to read the Bible. I started to read the New Testament. I lay down on my bed and the first page it opened to was the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15). It was the first time I'd ever read it. I wept for the first time since I was 10.

My Mum said I needed to see a priest. I went to see a priest who suggested that I go on retreat to Aylesford Priory. I didn't know what a retreat was. It produced a lot of fruit in my life. I prayed, reflected, read the Bible and wept. I didn't want to relate to my old friends in the criminal world. Some of them tried to drw me back into drug dealing. I was out of work but got a job on building site. I wanted to give something back to the community. I started doing some voluntary work. I did all kinds of things. I drove a minibus for the disabled, the elderly and the blind club. I also used to visit elderly people who were lonely and just chat to them. I worked with kids who were disabled and I started working in the drop-in-centre.


The grace of confession

One day I walked into a church and picked up a magazine and saw an advert about becoming a missionary. Fr Michael Kelly came to see me. He told me about a retreat called Youth 2000 - he said I'd enjoy it because a lot of young people would be there.

I felt that I needed to confess my sins. I went to Westminster Cathedral. I couldn't go to a priest I knew. So I went and I queued up and I knelt down. I told the priest I hadn't been to confession for 27 years. I was only in there for 3 minutes. The more i told him, the more his face just beamed and this peace and mercy came as he gave me absolution. The priest said: " For your penance, what prayers do you know? The onlyprayer I knew was the Our Father. He said: "Say one Our Father". I felt absolutely trasformed and I went and knelt down in Our Lady's Chapel and prayed the Our Father and as I walked out of Westminster Cathedral I felt like dancing because i felt really at peace.

The day came for me to go to the Youth 2000 retreat. It was Pentecost Sunday and I got up early. Suddenly there was a knock on my door and nine Old Bill came pouring in and they arrested me. I owed £ 2,700 in fines. They took me straightaway to Leyton nick and I was put in a cell there and then I was transferred to Walthamstow Magistrates' Court. I remember sitting in the cell at the court thinking: "I know that you will take care of this, God".

I remember this screw who knew me really well saying: You've got a really bad one today, John, she's in no mood for anything, she's got the right hump". He was right, the magistrate was in no mood for discussion. She told me to stand: " Mr. Pridmore, we can see that you owe £ 2,700 in fines - how are you going to pay?" She went on, rather sarcastically: " We can see how it has played on your conscience because in the last 10 years you have paid £ 7!"

I said: " Look, you honour, I've found God, I'm doing voluntary work and the most I can afford to pay is £ 1 a week."Understandably she was not impressed: " I am not willing to wait 2,700 weeks for you to pay your fine. You will go to prison for 30 days".

I was gutted. I said: " No, you don't understad, I'm going on a retreat. She said: " No, Mr. Pridmore, it's you who don't understand, you're going to Pentoville". I knew then I wouldn't be going to the retreat.

I only did half my sentence (during this time a fellow prisoner gave his life to Christ). I knew the priest expected me at the retreat, so I wrote to him and I told him that I was in prison, very sorry I couldn't come on the retreat. He phoned me up and said: " Don't worry, John, there's another retreat and it's in August and it's at Aylesford". I Knew Aylesford because I'd been there. So I set off for this retreat. I didn't know what to expect. There were 250 yung people there and the first thing I remember was all these people that I'd never met before coming up and giving me a hug and I couldn't believe there was so much love anywhere in the world.

The first talk I heard was " Give God your wounded heart" by Fr. Slafter. I remember looking at this cross as he gave this talk and for the first time in my life realizing that Jesus loved me so much that ha had gone through the agony for me. I said to the Lord: " What is it you want me to do for you ? " I heard the words: " Go to confession". I went again to confession and I just sat and emptied myself of everything. The priest put his hand on my head and I knew that it was Jesus' hand  and I knew that he truly forgave me. People were sayng to me, "You'e glowing".


Youth work

I went back to my parish, St Joseph's in Leyton, and I ended up asking Fr Dennis Hall if I could give my testimony. All these people saw me coming in and praying the rosary every day and going to Mass and they all thought what a lovely, holy young man! I just thought, what a pretence! I wanted them to know what I had been. Fr Hall said, yes, I could give my testimony when they had a meeting of confirmation kids on Sunday. So I thought : "That's not bad, there's only a few of them". But when it came to it there were 90 confirmation kids, plus 90 sponsors, plus all their families, about 350 people in the church!

I remember asking my mum if she minded me giving my testimony, and she said no. And I got uo and I just told them about my life. I was petrified. as I walked off the altar a woman came up to me crying, it was just amazing. The first thing that Fr Hall said was that he wanted me to run the youth club. So I started coming down to this youth club on Thurdays, and a lot of the kids were there and they thought I was amazing.

I realized that God wanted me to be a Youth Worker. I was going to a prayer group in Canning Town - it was a real source of strength. I was going to retreats as well, but not involved in helping in any way. I spent some time in New York working with kids in the Bronx. I spent time with the Franciscans of the renewal. When I came back I was offered the job of National Publicity Officer for Youth 2000.

Even though I have my ups and downs, that joy and peace is always with me. I know that I've got the best friend that anyone could ever have in Jesus Christ, and the future is whatever God wants me to do. Up to now my life has been, since I've found God, like an absolute grace after grace, miracle afer miracle.



A Saint who killed


Jacques Fesch was executed for murder in 1957. Now the Church is considering his beatification.

As day dawned over Paris, a slim, dark-haired young man stepped through a doorway into the courtyard of La Santé Prison. Surrounded by guards, hands and feet shackled, he walked to the guillotine erected in a corner of the yard during the night. He was pale but otherwise calm.

On the scaffold, he asked the priest beside him for the crucifix and kissed it. Before the blade fell, he uttered his last words: “Holy Vergin, have pity on me!”

The date: October 1,1957.

Jacques Fesch, a 27-years-old playboy, was beheaded for the murder of a police officer following a bungled robbery.

Yet many Catholics in France now believe that the killer died a saint. Thirty years after his execution, the archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, signed a decree that may one day see him beatified.


The story begins near the Paris Stock Exxhange on February 25, 1954. During the evening rush hour, Fesch arrived with a friend at a office of Alexandre Silberstein, a currency dealer in the Rue Vivenne. Om the previous day, Fesch had arranged to change 2 million francs into gold bars.

Silberstein asked his son to bring the gold from the safe. With the young man out of the way, Fesch pulled a revolver from his briefcase, pointed it at Silberstein, and demanded the cash from the till. His friend, meanwhile turned and fled.

As Silberstein tried to reason with him, Fesch hit the dealer twice across the head with the revolver butt. He grabbed 300,000 francs and ran.

Once outside, he tried to melt into the crowd on the busy street – but Silberstein recovered very quickly. Running from his office, he shouted to passers-by that Fesch had robbed him.

Now, with a crowd at his heels, the thief took refuge in a building on Les Grandes Boulevards. Minutes later, he re-emerged, attempting to play the part of an innocent citizen. Immediately someone cried, “That’s him!”


By this time, Jean Vergne, a 35-years-old police officer, had arrived at the scene. Vergne drew his revolver and ordered Fesch to put his hands up. Instead, Fesch reached inside his raincoat pocket for his own gun, and fired three times. Vergne, a widower with a 4-years-old daughter, was shot through the heart.

Enraged, the crowd chased the killer into the Richelieu-Drouot Metro station. Fesch, still firing, wounded one persuer in the neck before he was finally surrounded and overcome.

The public was shocked to learn that Vergne’s murderer was no common criminal, but the son of a wealthy banker, Georges Fesch. Jacques, born April 6, 1930, had idled his way trhough school, then travelled to Germany with the army. After he completed his service, his father found him a well-paying job at the bank, but he soon tired of it.

Georges Fesch had never taken much interest in his son, who was closer to his mother, Marthe.

Eventually, Jacques’s parents parted.


After the stint at the bank, Jacques had no real occupation. He sailed boats, rode horses, drove fast cars, and hung out with a band, where he tried to learn the trumpet. In a civil ceremony at age 21, he married Pierrette Polack, a neighbor’s daughter who was expecting his child. His anti- semitic parents were horrified: Pierrette, herself Catholic, had a Jewish father.

A daughter was born, but Fesch continued to see other women.

With one of these he had an illegitimate son, Gerard, whom he abandoned to public care. Soon after, Jacques and Pierrette separated, but remained friends.

Bored and restless, Jacques Fesch now conceived a grand plan. He would buy a boat, sail away to the South Pacific, and a start a new life in the sun. For this, of course, he would need money. He petitioned his parents first, but, for once, they refused.

Very well, he would get the cash for himself. He would rob Alexandre Silberstein.


That his made scheme might go wrong seems not to have occurred to Jacques. Sitting in court with a bandaged head, his mood was defiant. He said he was only sorry he had not carried a submachine gun.

Later, to the chaplain at La Santé Prison, he declared, “I’ve got no faith. No need to trouble yourself about me”.

But Paul Baudet, his defense attorney and a deeply spiritual Catholic, resolved to fight, not only for his client’s life, but also for his soul. At first, Fesch viewed the lawyer’s efforts with amused disdain. He called him “Pope Paul” and “Torquemada” (after the infamous Spanish inquisitor).

Fesch had another advocate in the tough-minded Dominican chaplain, Père Devoyod, and in Brother Thomas. Young Benedictine who knew Pierrette and wrote regularly from his monastery. Fesch’s mother-in-law, Madame Polack. Also cared for him as for a son.


From the ouset, fesch had a little doubt that he would face the guillotine. Yet, despite his bravado, he was afraid. He was also sick with guilt at the trouble he had brought upon his family. Yet he remained a skeptic, until the night of February 28, 1955, when he experienced a sudden and dramatic conversion. He wrote an account of it two months before his execution:

“I was in bed, eyes open, really suffering for the first time in my life…It was then that a cry burst from my breast, an appeal for help – My God – and instantly, like a violent wind which passes over without anyone knowing where it comes from, the spirit of the Lord seized me by the throat.

“I had an impression of infinite power and kindness and, from that moment onward, I believed with an unshakeable conviction that has never left me”.


Fesch was to spend another two and a half years in prison.

During that time, he lived a life even more ascetic that the rules demanded. He went to bed at 7 each evening, gave up chocolate and cigarettes, and took only a half-hour of exercise each day. To Brother Thomas he wrote, “In prison there two possible solutions: You can rebel against your situation, or you can ragard yourself as a monk.” Though he suffered periods of depression, his fear of death was now supplanted by an even stronger feeling – the fear of dying badly.

Meanwhile, the legal process ground slowly on. More that three years after his crime, Fesch finally came to trial. Baudet argued that the shooting had not been premeditated, but was the act of a frightened man facing a hostile crowd.

Fesch himself now expressed remorse for the murder of Jean Vergne and for the grief he had caused the officer’s family. This feeling is also shown movingly in his letters and in the journal, published after his death, which he dedicated  to his daughter, Veronique.

Neither Baudet’s eloquence nor Fesch’s remorse moved the court. At 7:45 p.m. on April 8, 1957, Jacques Fesch was sentenced to death.

Though he continued to live an intense prayer life, Fesch did not find it easy to accept his fate.

Since his crime was unpremeditated, he believed that he did not deserve to die. He was tempted to hate those who were sending him to the guillotine, but he overcame the temptation. “May each dropof my blood wipe out  a mortal sin”, he wrote.


News of his conversion began spreading, and some began to show sympathy for the repentant killer. His final hope lay with the French president, René Coty, a man known for his humanity. But Coty was under strong police pressure not to show mercy, especially at a time when police officers were being murdered by Algerian terrorists.

“Tell your client that he has all my esteem and that I wanted very much to reprieve him,” the president replied to Baudet’s personal appeal. “But if I did that, I would put the lives of other police officers in danger.” He asked that Fesch accept his death so that officers’ lives might be saved.

Coty admitted later that he passed a sleepless night before Fesch was guillotined. As the president lay awake, Fesch wrote in his journal: “The last day of struggle, at this time tomorrow I shall be in heaven! May I die as the Lord wishes me to die…Night falls and I feel sad, sad…I will meditate on the agony of Our Lord in the Garden of Olives, but good Jesus, help me!…Only five hours to live! In five hours, I shall see Jesus.”

Gerard, his abandoned son, was also on his mind. He pleaded that the boy should be well cared for.


The publication of Fesch’s journal and letters created widespread interest among the French public, and touched young people especially.

Those who seek Fesch’s beatification point to his mystical experience, his fervent spirituality, his self-conquest, and his victorious battle against the demons of bitterness and despair. But the move to beatify him has created controversy.

“Where are we headed, if we start beatifying criminals?” demanded a police union chief. Another, while accepting fesch’s sincerity, warned that the proposed step might encourage offenders to use conversion as a ploy to avoid punishment. One editorial predicted dryly that Fesch would become the patron saint of gunmen, who would in future pack a votive medal of St. Jacques along with their Magnum 357s.

Vergne’s daughter, now a lawyer, has refused to comment publicy, but privately has met with cardinal Lustiger.

Frequently, Fesch is likened to the good Thief on Calvary. “Nobody is ever lost in God’s eyes, even when society has condemned him,” Lustiger has said. He wishes to see Fesch beatified “to give a great hope to those who despise themselves, who see themselves as irredeemably lost”.