ALCALA PARK — Sister Helen Prejean, or the “Death Penalty Nun” as she calls herself, visited the University of San Diego Nov. 20, sharing her faith-filled journey and the very day that a man’s methodical death allowed her to become fully alive.
The crowd inside The Immaculata Church, which was filled to capacity, listened to her stories; many wept and later cheered.
The author of Dead Man Walking, which inspired the film of the same name starring actress Susan Sarandon, was invited to speak at the request of the Ignatian Volunteer Corps. Following Sister Prejean’s two-hour talk, attendees leaving The Immaculata were greeted by signature-takers for the death penalty replacement initiative sponsored by Safe California.
In a private interview the day of her USD speech, Sister Prejean explained how she affirms her Catholic identity in a world where constant calls for retribution conflict with her own unequivocal opposition to the death penalty, and why airplanes and airports are her new cloister.
It was in 1981 that Sister Prejean experienced a spiritual awakening after beginning her prison ministry in the St. Thomas housing project in New Orleans. Already armed with a bachelor’s degree in English, Sister Prejean forecasted her calling as a teacher. Her favorite age group was middle-schoolers. She imagined herself growing old in the classroom, helping students with their sentence diagrams and correcting essays on favorite summer vacations.
Little did she know that she would find her own voice, a comfortable and authentic style of writing, when she started living and interacting daily with the community at St. Thomas. There, she met families who had fathers, brothers and neighbors already imprisoned.
Since experiencing her first execution, witnessing the death of Patrick Sonnier on April 5, 1984, Sister Prejean has watched five other men die through the U.S. justice system. She keeps death row statistics nationwide on her Web site, www.prejean.org. She firmly believes that the death penalty can be overturned in states that uphold it, including California, through education and by focusing on young people.
She has partnered with the writer/director of the film “Dead Man Walking,” Tim Robbins, to further reach younger generations through the Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project. To date, no high schools or colleges in San Diego County have participated in this outreach. (For more information, visit www.dmwplay.org.)
Diminutive in stature, but dynamic in nature, Sister Prejean travels most of the year and takes respite in the winter and summer months for writing. She is currently working on the 2013 release of her autobiography, River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey. This body of work will retrace her privileged childhood in Louisiana, tell how she recognized her call to the religious life in high school, and describe the metamorphosis of a charitable life into her true vocation: to serve the poor as Jesus demonstrated.
A self-described “late bloomer,” Sister Prejean said, “It doesn’t matter when we wake up. When we do — we can act.”
She is often asked why she focuses on the death penalty when the crimes committed by the offenders are so heinous. “Everyone is worth more than the worst thing they’ve ever done,” she stated.
Her heroes are the families of victims who do not seek retribution, but rather forgiveness, despite the life-changing and violent acts that have happened to their loved ones.
At age 18, Sister Prejean joined the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille (now called the Congregation of St. Joseph). Nearly five decades later, her favorite respite is above the clouds some 30,000 to 40,000 feet in the air where she can pray, read and continue her writing in an anonymous airplane nook. From airport to airport, it’s an untethered time for this natural storyteller, who at age 73, has no plans to slow down.
“Being alive is such a great gift,” she shared.
This article ran in the December 2011 issue of The Southern Cross, reprinted here by permission.
Copyright 2012 Colleen McNatt