Sister Helen Prejean discusses prisoner activism
THE SANTA CLARA
April 16, 2015
Leading capital punishment opponent Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J., spoke to the university community about her story of service.
The bespectacled nun with a hearty Louisiana accent spoke to a crowded Mayer Theatre on Monday night, opening the two-day Dean’s Leadership Forum, an annual event hosted by the College of Arts and Sciences.
After being born into an affluent Baton Rouge family and attending private school, a religious life introduced her to the most disadvantaged and rejected among us, primarily those on death row.
After joining the Congregation of St. Joseph in 1957, Prejean began working in the St. Thomas Development, a housing project filled mostly with African Americans.
There she saw firsthand the realities of poverty.
This helped her shift from being what she described as a “spiritual nun,” one who focused primarily on cultivating piety, to being a nun who called for social justice.
“I began to be taught by African American people,” she explained. “I had never questioned that black people had to go to separate water fountains … Never questioned that young black kids had to receive Holy Communion separate from the white kids.”
Realizing her privilege as a white member of society, she threw herself into the world of social justice. This led to her social work with prisoners.
Prejean’s prisoners’ rights activism began when she served as a spiritual advisor to Patrick Sonnier, a convicted murderer.
After he wrote a letter to the Congregation of St. Joseph asking for spiritual guidance, Prejean volunteered to pen a response.
“Sure, I can write a letter to someone on death row. I was an English major,” she joked. “I wrote him a letter, he wrote back. I wrote, he wrote.”
Before long, she visited the inmate and thus began a two-year bond that ended with Prejean watching Sonnier die at his execution. Moved by her experience, she dedicated her life to fighting the death penalty.
Over the course of the two years, she struggled with a host of emotions.
After learning of the horrific crimes committed by her spiritual partner, she questioned her mission.
After much soul searching and dialogue with the father of one of the victims, she realized the importance of her work.
“We talk about the sanctity of life, but is the life of the innocent the only life worth protecting?” she said.
Paul Crowley, S.J., asked her questions from the audience.
“I didn’t quite expect to be so taken by Sister Prejean,” Crowley said in an email. “It was her authenticity that bowled me over. She speaks with an authority deriving from her experience that commands our attention.”
She stressed the importance of immediate action in addressing the use of the death penalty.
“Because we live in a democracy, all of our names are on that gurney when someone is executed,” Prejean said. “The call is to us, to get involved … to take a stand for justice, to end the death penalty.”
Contact Nicolas Sonnenburg at nsonnenburg @scu.edu or call (408) 554-4852.