The Catholic Commentator
Baton Rouge, LA
By Debbie Shelley
During a program sponsored by the St. Joseph Spirituality Center in Baton Rouge, Sister Helen Prejean CSJ tells her story about how her involvement with the poor lead her to become a leading advocate for the abolition of the death penalty in the United States.
Sister Helen Prejean CSJ lived a sheltered life as she grew up in Baton Rouge during the 1940s. Even though segregation was being practiced at that time and the poor were treated unfairly, she accepted without question that such injustices were “just the way things are.” After she took her religious vows and moved to New Orleans and lived among the poor and came into contact with prisoners on death row, Sr. Helen got very involved in social justice issues and became a leading advocate for the abolition of the death penalty in the United States.
The author of “Dead Man Walking” and “Death of Innocents” shared her journey of learning about the Gospel’s teachings on social justice during a program, “Finding Christ on Death Row,” at the St. Joseph Spirituality Center in Baton Rouge.
Sr. Helen said while her relationship with God blossomed as a child, she did not think about becoming involved in social justice issues then. She noticed that even in the Catholic Church, black people sat separately from white people, but because segregation was a normal practice in society at that time, she never questioned issues such as racism. She said she trusted God as her savior and that he would take care of everyone.
Sr. Helen took her vows in 1957, and received bachelor degrees in English and education from St. Mary’s Dominican College in New Orleans in 1962. In 1973, she earned a master’s degree in religious education from St. Paul’s University in Ottawa, Canada. Sr. Helen then pursued her desire to teach. She became the religious education director at St. Frances Cabrini Church in New Orleans and taught junior and senior high school students. She also conducted retreats.
Sr. Helen said her transition from being a director of religious education to becoming an advocate for the abolishment of the death penalty evolved as she became involved with the poor.
“Poor people lived literally at our back doors in New Orleans,” Sr. Helen said.
The Second Vatican Council’s emphasis on God’s love resonated in Sr. Helen’s heart, but she said it took a long time for her to “wake up to social justice and the Gospels.”
According to Sr. Helen, in 1980, her community struggled with its role in social justice issues and its members engaged in heated debates over what its mission should be.
As Sr. Helen wondered “what does all of this mean to me?” she said her eyes were opened to the plight of the poor as she came into contact with children who lived in poor communities which were geographically close to her. As she reread the Gospel accounts of Jesus associating with the poor and about him proclaiming the Good News to the poor, she realized that she had become disconnected from the suffering of the poor.
In June 1981 Sr. Helen moved in with four nuns who lived in an inner-city housing project in New Orleans. While living in the housing project, Sr. Helen’s friend from
the Louisiana Coalition on Jails and Prisons Office asked her to become a pen pal to Louisiana State Penitentiary death row inmate Patrick Sonnier, who was convicted in 1978 of killing a teenage couple. She later visited him and agreed to be his spiritual advisor. She accompanied him in 1984 to his execution, which she witnessed.
Her experiences while visiting death row gave Sr. Helen greater insight into the process involved in prisoner executions and she began speaking out against capital punishment.
Sr. Helen wrote an autobiography about her relationship with Sonnier and other men on death row in her book, “Dead Man Walking,” which was the basis for an Oscar nominated film in 1995.
Some Catholics ask Sr. Helen why she speaks out against the death penalty and tell her they believe that executing a prisoner condemned for taking another person’s life gives justice to the victim’s family.
Sr. Helen, who also prays with and assists the family of the victim, said many people suffer when a person is murdered. She said the parents of the victims are more likely to divorce as they struggle to accept their child’s death. Even though the victim’s parents are given the opportunity to witness the execution of the person convicted of killing their child, it does not take away the void in their hearts created by the “empty chair.”
The prisoners on death row are also victims, according to Sr. Helen. The condemned have a lot of time to think about their upcoming death and may experience many emotional upheavals as their sentences are appealed and they are granted stays of execution before being put to death.
Believing there are people on death row who are innocent, but are too poor to afford adequate representation, Sr. Helen said the poor become the victims of injustices within the legal system.
Sr. Helen said it is easy to look at prisoners as “non-humans” and think they deserve their punishment. She said the Gospels call Catholics to see the face of Christ in everyone, including the poor and prisoners.
She challenged those attending her talk to seek God and ask for his help in answering three important life questions: “Who are you, God?” “Who am I?” and “What do you want me to do?”
She said many of the answers to those questions are found through treating others with the compassion of Christ.
To a group of St. Joseph’s Academy students who attended the program Sr. Helen said, “This is the time for you to find your calling in life. Get involved with people and get involved with people not like you.”