REGINA — Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, did not experience poverty as a child or young adult but she now spends most of her time living and working among the poor in New Orleans and as a spiritual adviser to inmates on death row. It was in this latter capacity that she came to Regina March 5 as this year’s Nash Lecturer, named after the first president of Campion College, University of Regina, Rev. Peter Nash, SJ.
Resting an elbow lightly on the lectern in the University of Regina Education Auditorium, Prejean described her journey as a nun with the Congregation of St. Joseph (CSJ), first as an elementary and high school teacher in New Orleans and her transformation to her current ministry as an internationally recognized voice against the death penalty. Her book, Dead Man Walking, which describes her experience accompanying inmates to their execution, was made into a movie, stage play and opera. The movie, starring Sean Penn as inmate Patrick Sonnier and Susan Sarandon as Prejean, was nominated for four Oscars with Sarandon awarded the Oscar for best actress.
She told a story of what she called “sneaky Jesus one and two” that explained how she became an internationally recognized voice opposed to the death penalty.
She was asked if she would write to an inmate on death row. She agreed and over time the relationship grew. Sneaky Jesus one, said Prejean. Next came a visit with Sonnier in death row.
“I was scared,” she said, “all those clanging doors behind me as I walked further inside.” And then she saw his face. “I thought, my God, he’s a human being.” Sneaky Jesus two.
It was supposed to be a short visit. “You know, pour Jesus’ grace over him and leave,” she joked. It turned into a two-hour visit.
“The best gift we have to give each other is our presence,” she said and expanded it to include parents, children, grandparents, friends. She said she was outraged at Sonnier’s crime, the rape and killing of a 16-year-old girl and her boyfriend, but “the Gospel of Jesus is reconciliation.”
She became Sonnier’s spiritual adviser and accompanied him to his execution in the electric chair, and that began her ministry opposing the death penalty. She admitted to what she called her biggest mistake: not meeting with the victim’s parents until a week before the execution. She now is part of and meets with advocacy groups for homicide victims families.
She wrote Dead Man Walking, detailing her experience and the book became an international bestseller that has led to an international movement to have the death penalty banned. She has been spiritual adviser to several death row inmates and has accompanied at least half a dozen to their execution. She is convinced innocent people have been put to death and describes that in The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions.