By Bonny Van

The Catholic Commentator 

When the bell tone sounded on Sept. 11, hundreds of students at St. Joseph’s Academy in Baton Rouge quickly began to fill the bleachers in the Student Activity Center. In the front row of the chairs lined up on the floor sat the Sisters of St. Joseph, always considered special guests of the school. Having taken their seats long before the students filed in, the sisters chatted quietly among themselves and with school leaders. Among them was Sister Helen Prejean CSJ. Modestly dressed and diminutive in stature, she blended in with the other bespectacled ladies seated around her. Then, she took the stage. 

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Sister Helen Prejean CSJ talks with students of St. Joseph’s Academy in Baton Rouge about the importance of following what Jesus calls them to do and to raise their voices. She was the first speaker in a series to help the school celebrate its 150th anniversary. Photo by Bonny Van | The Catholic Commentator

 

“What a joy!” said the 79-year-old nun, author of “Dead Man Walking” and “The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions.” “Because this is a great age to be a woman. I stand here and I see sanctity, joy and compassion and all of our sisters here with me, Sisters of St. Joseph, and all of you.” 

With her voice gaining strength as she spoke, Sister Helen stood in front of a vintage photo of herself as the SJA May Queen of 1957. Months after that photo was taken, Sister Helen graduated from SJA and joined the Congregation of Sisters of St. Joseph. According to Sister Helen, three main lessons from SJA stayed with her throughout her ministry: the Catholic faith; a challenging education; and the call “to raise our voice.” 

“I learned to write, I learned to speak, I learned public speaking at this school and I use it every day of my life now to stand up as a woman and be a leader, and our faith is right at the heart of that,” said Sister Helen. 

She told the audience that she had just finished writing a memoir called “River of Fire.” She said the book, which will be released this summer, is about the fire of our faith. 

“Catching the fire is when our faith comes alive, when a wind blows on the coals of our soul and something in us, when we see something, we go, ‘That’s not right’ or ‘That needs to change,’ ” she said. “Our conscious kicks in and we know we gotta raise our voice in some way. We have to act in some way. 

All of those things I first learned here.” 

Sister Helen explained how her journey began in taking on the death penalty by “just trying to listen to God’s call, and to act.” Later, inspired by a talk by Sister Marie Augusta Neal about Jesus preaching the Gospel to the poor, Sister Helen moved to the St. Thomas Housing Project in New Orleans where “African-American people became my teachers.” 

“This was the other America,” she explained. “I’d grown up in white privilege all over the place. My daddy was a successful lawyer and we had black servants when I was growing up. I never questioned that.” 

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A photo of Sister Helen Prejean CSJ as May Queen 1957 at St. Joseph’s Academy in Baton Rouge was placed on the stage during Sister Helen’s speech.

 

One day, according to Sister Helen, someone with the Prison Coalition Office asked if she wanted to be pen pals with someone on death row. 

“I said, ‘yeah, sure I could do that,’ ” she recalled. “Because I was there to serve poor people and I know that on the streets, capital punishment means ‘them without the capital get the punishment.’ Only poor people in this country are selected for death. Did y’all know that?” 

Sister Helen said she was surprised when the person she wrote to, Patrick Sonnier, wrote back and so began a correspondence that eventually led to her being appointed as his spiritual adviser so that she could visit him in prison at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. Sonnier was executed in the electric chair at midnight April 5, 1984 for the murders of two teens in Iberia Parish. As his spiritual adviser, Sister Helen was the only person allowed in the room during the execution. 

“When I came out of the execution chamber that night, it was in the middle of the night, it was dark, I’d never watched anybody be killed in front of my eyes, and I threw up. I vomited. And I remember thinking and it has stayed with me, when God calls us and it is deep in us, it’s going to stay. And it happened right outside the gates of Angola, in the dark,” she said.

“We are women of action,” she said. “When we see something, we raise our voices in the quest for justice.” 

For SJA students, the message was empowering and powerful. Microphones positioned throughout the auditorium allowed for students to line up with questions for Sister Helen. Questions ranged from how the students themselves could begin to raise awareness against the death penalty to how families get justice for those who are imprisoned but are innocent. One student was even inspired to reach out to the incarcerated and asked how to become pen pals with someone on death row.

“I liked the way she had the Louisiana culture behind her talk. It was really easy for me to connect with her, and I really agree with her on the idea that life is meant to be treated with dignity,” said SJA freshman McKinley Howard. “And, the death penalty and life imprisonment – I don’t feel like that gives dignity to people.” 

“I guess I’ve always thought (the death penalty) is okay,” said Anya Stuart, another ninth-grader. “She’s really kind of changed my mind. I see it more from a Catholic point of view and I’m really starting to understand why it shouldn’t be done.”

“We saw some of her videos in theology class and it was really inspirational just how into it and passionate she is about the death penalty,” said McKenna Ramsey, a junior at SJA.