An 80-year-old nun stood at the altar of Sacred Heart University’s Chapel of the Holy Spirit and told her captivated audience about her life since “sneaky Jesus” guided her to correspond with a prison inmate.
It’s been quite a life. Sister Helen Prejean is more than a nun; she is a spiritual adviser to death-row inmates and an activist with a drive to abolish the death penalty in the U.S. And she’s an author. Her newest book is River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey, but you might know her better by her first book, Dead Man Walking. It became a major, Oscar-nominated movie in 1995 starring Susan Sarandon as a nun counseling Sean Penn’s character, a death-row inmate.
At Sacred Heart, Prejean took a moment to admire the chapel’s amazing mosaics, telling the community members, students, faculty and staff, “This is art.” She connected her thoughts on the art to the Catholic intellectual tradition and to her work as an activist. Prejean commented on the pelican mosaic, which symbolizes Jesus, and she was impressed that the Virgin Mary is depicted holding two balls of yarn. She liked that “feminine” touch, she said.
Born in Baton Rouge, LA, Prejean said she grew up privileged. She lived in a two-story house; her father was a lawyer; she went to school and had a good education. She never questioned the Jim Crow laws or the predominant racism that surrounded her.
As a nun, Prejean said, she was obedient and did what was asked of her. She prayed and was charitable, but she wasn’t interested in becoming a social-justice warrior. That would have been “messy, messy,” she said.
Then, at a retreat, a nun reminded Prejean that Jesus served the poor. He “preached the good news to the poor.” Prejean told the audience that, as she listened to this mentor, she thought to herself, “I don’t even know any poor people.”
Life changes followed. She started volunteering in the inner city and at a nonprofit center called Hope House. She worked at an adult learning center, teaching people to read and write.
Prejean experienced Jesus’s prompt in 1982, leading her to something greater than she could have imagined, she said. Prejean was asked to write letters to Elmo Patrick Sonnier, a convicted murderer and rapist on death row at Louisiana State Penitentiary. As they corresponded, she noticed Sonnier never mentioned having visitors, so she began to visit him. Eventually, Prejean said, she became his spiritual adviser, never thinking he would be executed—there hadn’t been an execution in Louisiana in nearly a decade. “I thought it was over,” Prejean said. “I didn’t know two-and-a-half years from that time that he would be electrocuted.”
In 1984, Prejean walked Sonnier’s last steps with him and witnessed his death.
While a great many Catholics are pro-life and also pro-death penalty, Prejean rejects that type of thinking. People can’t just uphold “innocent life,” she said, asserting that all human life has dignity. Moreover, even with inmates awaiting their executions on death row for committing violent crimes, the death penalty isn’t curtailing violence, said Prejean; it’s not a deterrent.