St. Joseph’s Academy welcomed special guest speaker Sister Helen Prejean to campus on September 6. Sister Helen, a 1957 graduate of SJA, spoke to students, faculty, staff and guests in the Student Activity Center.
Sister Helen is a best-selling author and leading advocate for the abolition of the death penalty. She said her faith journey began at St. Joseph’s Academy. “We were family, we had fun and we felt loved,” she said, describing the environment as one that fueled students’ potential and challenged them to discern how God moves in their lives. “Ask not simply for understanding,” she said. “Ask for the fire.”
When she joined the Sisters of St. Joseph at the age of 18, Sister Helen said she thought she’d never have to make another decision. “I thought I’d just do what my superiors told me to do, and I’d be a good nun,” she quipped. But Vatican II led to a different mindset. She was awakened to social justice issues and moved into a New Orleans housing project. “I saw how privileged I was,” she said. “My dad was a lawyer, and I went to a good school. I was seeing what happens when you don’t [have privileges].”
A friend asked if she’d be willing to exchange letters with a man on death row at Angola State Prison. She agreed and began her prison ministry in 1981. She became pen pals with Patrick Sonnier, sentenced to die in the electric chair for the murder of two teenagers. She would travel to Angola to visit him and, as his spiritual advisor, witnessed his execution. The experience “set her soul on fire.”
Sister Helen described her experiences in her first book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty, which would be number one on the New York Times Best Seller List for 31 weeks. It was developed into a major motion picture starring Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen, a role for which Sarandon won the Academy Award for Best Actress. The book has also been made into an opera, which will make its Metropolitan Opera premiere in September. Sister Helen said she plans to be there.
As the founder of Survive, a victim’s advocacy group in New Orleans, Sister Helen counsels not only inmates on death row, but the families of murder victims, as well. She described her relationship with Lloyd LeBlanc, the father of David, one of the teens murdered by Sonnier and his brother. Lloyd’s all-consuming anger was turning him into a person he didn’t recognize. He told Sister Helen, “They killed my boy, but I’m not going to let them kill me.” He would eventually reach out to Patrick Sonnier’s mother, whom her neighbors had ostracized, and told her, “I’m here for you.”
Sister Helen’s second book, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions, was published in 2004. It would lead to a dialogue with Pope John Paul II. In 2018, Pope Francis formally changed the official Catholic Church teaching and called capital punishment “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” and that it was “inadmissible” in all cases.
Sister Helen’s third book, River of Fire On Becoming an Activist, chronicles her journey of faith and spirituality and catching on fire to purpose and passion.
Sister Helen told the students that they are living in an important time when women’s voices are heard. She told them to “be on fire” and to use their gifts to put sanctity and joy into action.
Mindy Brodhead Averitt