Helen Prejean

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Helen Prejean
Born (1939-04-21) April 21, 1939 (age 81)
OccupationRoman Catholic nun, spiritual adviser, author, anti-death penalty activist

Helen Prejean (born April 21, 1939 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana) is a Roman Catholic nun. She is a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph. She is a well-known activist against the death penalty in the United States.

Early life and education[change | change source]

Helen Prejean was born to Augusta Mae (née Bourg; 1911–1993), a nurse, and Louis Sebastian Prejean (1893–1974), a lawyer.[1] She joined the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Medaille in 1957. In 1962, she received a Bachelor of Arts in English and Education from St. Mary’s Dominican College in New Orleans, Louisiana. In 1973, she earned a Master of Arts in religious education from Saint Paul University in Ottawa, Canada.[2]

She has worked as:[2]

Death row ministry[change | change source]

Prejean began to work with prisoners on death row in 1981, in New Orleans, Louisiana. In 1982, a friend asked her to write to Elmo Patrick Sonnier, who was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death by electrocution. He was in prison in the Louisiana State Penitentiary.[3]

Prejean visited Sonnier in prison and agreed to be his spiritual adviser in the months leading up to his execution. Doing this made Prejean more aware of the process involved in executions. She began speaking out against the death penalty. At the same time, she also founded Survive, an organization that counseled the families of victims of violence.

Since 1982, Prejean has ministered to many other inmates on death row, and has witnessed several more executions. She served as National Chairperson of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty from 1993 to 1995.

Louisiana State Penitentiary, where Sonnier was in prison.

Dead Man Walking[change | change source]

Prejean wrote a book called Dead Man Walking about her relationship with Sonnier and other inmates on death row. The book was made into a feature film, an opera, and a play. In the film, Susan Sarandon played Prejean, and won an Academy Award for Best Actress.[4]

Campaigns, book, and awards[change | change source]

In 1999, Prejean formed Moratorium 2000, a petition drive that eventually grew into a national education campaign, The Moratorium Campaign.[5] The organization Witness to Innocence,[6] a group of death row survivors who were convicted for crimes they did not commit, started under The Moratorium Campaign.

Prejean published her second book, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions, in December 2004. In this book, she tells the story of two men, Dobie Gillis Williams and Joseph O'Dell, whom she accompanied to their executions. She believes that both men were innocent. The book also examines the recent history of death penalty decisions by the Supreme Court of the United States and looks at the track record of George W. Bush as Governor of Texas.

In 1998, Prejean was given the Pacem in Terris Award. This award was named after a 1963 encyclical letter by Pope John XXIII that calls on all people of good will to make peace among all countries. Pacem in terris is Latin for "Peace on Earth."

Prejean now bases her work at the Death Penalty Discourse Network in New Orleans, and spends her time giving talks across the United States and around the world. She and her sister, Mary Ann Antrobus, have been deeply involved at a center in Nicaragua called Friends of Batahola.[7]

Awards and recognition[change | change source]

Prejean has given commencement (graduation) addresses to more than 50 colleges and universities around the world.[8]

She has also won other awards, including these:

Related pages[change | change source]

References[change | change source]

  1. "Sister Helen Prejean". University of Louisiana. Retrieved May 27, 2015.
  2. 2.0 2.1 "Biography". Ministry Against the Death Penalty. Retrieved June 18, 2013.
  3. "CHURCH NEEDS TO AID KILLERS AS WELL AS VICTIMS' FAMILIES, NUN SAYS". Chicago Tribune. January 19, 2006. p. Metro Chicago 8. Retrieved September 1, 2010. It was at St Thomas in 1982 that an acquaintance asked her to write to Elmo "Pat " Sonnier, a stranger on Death Row.
  4. "Trivia for Dead Man Walking". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved December 22, 2015.
  5. "The Moratorium Campaign". Retrieved December 22, 2015.
  6. "Witness to Innocence". Witness to Innocence. Retrieved December 22, 2015.
  7. VICTORIN-VANGERUD, AARON (June 1, 2011). "Sister Helen Prejean (CSJ) and Mary Ann Antrobus, June 2011". University of Minnesota. Retrieved December 22, 2015.
  8. "FINDING AID FOR Sr. Helen Prejean Papers". Series 005.001: University and College Commencements. DePaul University Special Collections and Archives.