Helen Prejean

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Helen Prejean

Prejean in 2006
Born (1939-04-21) April 21, 1939 (age 84)
Occupation(s)Sister, spiritual adviser, author, anti-death penalty activist

Helen Prejean CSJ (/prˈʒɑːn/ pray-ZHAHN;[1] born April 21, 1939) is a Catholic religious sister and a leading American advocate for the abolition of the death penalty.

She is known for her best-selling book, Dead Man Walking (1993), based on her experiences with two convicts on death row for whom she served as spiritual adviser before their executions. In her book, she explored the effects of the death penalty on everyone involved. The book was adapted as a 1995 film of the same name, starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. It was also adapted as an opera, first produced in 2000 by the San Francisco Opera.

She served as the National Chairperson of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty from 1993 to 1995. She helped establish The Moratorium Campaign, seeking an end to executions and conducting education on the death penalty. Prejean also founded the groups SURVIVE to help families of victims of murder and related crimes.

Early life and education[edit]

Helen Prejean was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the daughter of Augusta Mae (née Bourg; 1911–1993), a nurse, and Louis Sebastian Prejean (1893–1974), a lawyer.[2] She joined the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Medaille in 1957.

In 1962, she received a Bachelor of Arts in English and Education from St. Mary's Dominican College, New Orleans, Louisiana. In 1973, she earned a Master of Arts in religious education from Saint Paul University, an affiliated college of the University of Ottawa. She has been the Religious Education Director at St. Frances Cabrini Parish in New Orleans, the Formation Director for the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Medaille, and has taught junior and senior high school.[3]

Death row ministry[edit]

Her efforts began in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1981. In 1982 an acquaintance asked her to correspond with convicted murderer Elmo Patrick Sonnier, held on death row in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola.[4] Sonnier had been sentenced to death by electrocution. She visited Sonnier in prison and agreed to be his spiritual adviser in the months leading up to his execution. The experience gave Prejean greater insight into the process involved in executions, for the convict, families, and others in the prison, and she began speaking out against capital punishment. At the same time, she founded Survive, an organization devoted to counseling the families of victims of violence.

Prejean has since ministered to other inmates on death row and witnessed several more executions. She served as National Chairperson of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty from 1993 to 1995.

Louisiana State Penitentiary, where Sonnier was incarcerated.

Dead Man Walking[edit]

She published Dead Man Walking (1993), an account of her relationship with Sonnier and other inmates on death row, and the factors related to her growing opposition to the death penalty. The book was adapted for a 1995 feature film of the same name; she was portrayed by Susan Sarandon.[5]

Her book also was adapted as an opera of the same name, first produced by the San Francisco Opera in 2000. The libretto is by Terrence McNally and the music composed by Jake Heggie.[6] It has also been adapted as a play of the same name, which was first produced in autumn 2003.[7]

For her book, she drew from her experiences with Sonnier and with the convict Robert Lee Willie. He had been sentenced to death after being convicted of kidnapping and murder in two attacks in May 1980.[8] Prejean also explored the effects that conducting the death penalty has on attorneys, prison guards, other prison officials, and the families of both convicted murderers and their victims. Since then Prejean has worked with other men sentenced to death.

In December 2010, Prejean donated all of her archival papers to DePaul University.[9] [10]

Campaigns, book, and awards[edit]

In 1996, she was awarded the Laetare Medal by the University of Notre Dame, the oldest and most prestigious award for American Catholics.[11]

In 1999, Prejean formed Moratorium 2000, a petition drive that eventually grew into a national education campaign, The Moratorium Campaign,[12] seeking to declare a moratorium to executions. It was initially staffed by Robert Jones, Theresa Meisz, and Jené O'Keefe. The organization Witness to Innocence,[13] composed of death row survivors who were exonerated after being convicted for crimes they did not commit, was started under The Moratorium Campaign.

Prejean wrote a second book, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions (2004). She tells of two men, Dobie Gillis Williams and Joseph O'Dell, whom she accompanied to their executions. She believes that both men were innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. The book also examines the recent history of death penalty decisions by the Supreme Court of the United States and the record of George W. Bush as Governor of Texas.

In 1998, Prejean was given the Pacem in Terris Award, named after a 1963 encyclical letter by Pope John XXIII that calls on all people of good will to secure peace among all nations. Pacem in terris is Latin for "Peace on Earth."

Prejean now bases her work at the Ministry Against the Death Penalty in New Orleans. She gives talks about the issues across the United States and around the world. She and her sister Mary Ann Antrobus have also been deeply involved at a center in Nicaragua called Friends of Batahola.[14]

In 2019 she wrote a memoir titled River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey.[15] In it she talks about her spiritual journey leading her to engage in social justice work.

Awards and recognition[edit]

Prejean has given commencement addresses to more than 50 colleges and universities around the world.[16]


  1. ^ Prejean, Helen (May 15, 2014). "How to pronounce 'Prejean'". Vimeo. Retrieved 23 August 2021.
  2. ^ "Sister Helen Prejean". University of Louisiana. Archived from the original on May 31, 2016. Retrieved May 27, 2015.
  3. ^ "Biography". Ministry Against the Death Penalty. Retrieved June 18, 2013.
  4. ^ Nolan, Bruce (January 19, 1996). "Church Needs to Aid Killers as Well as Victims' Families, Nun Says". Chicago Tribune. p. Metro Chicago 8. Retrieved October 23, 2019. It was at St Thomas in 1982 that an acquaintance asked her to write to Elmo "Pat" Sonnier, a stranger on Death Row.
  5. ^ Dead Man Walking at AllMovie
  6. ^ Faires, Robert (December 6, 2002). "Arias From Death Row". The Austin Chronicle.
  7. ^ "Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project". Catholic Mobilizing Network. Archived from the original on September 11, 2011.
  8. ^ "Louisiana Killer Is Put to Death". The New York Times. December 28, 1984. Retrieved September 5, 2019.
  9. ^ DeGraff, Kathryn (February 7, 2011). "DePaul Archives Acquire Prejean Death Penalty Papers & Dead Man Walking Manuscript". DePaul University Library. Archived from the original on May 18, 2015. Retrieved May 15, 2015.
  10. ^ Brachear, Manya A. (February 10, 2011). "DePaul gets papers of 'Dead Man Walking' nun". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved October 23, 2019.
  11. ^ "Recipients | The Laetare Medal". University of Notre Dame. Retrieved 2 August 2020.
  12. ^ "The Moratorium Campaign". Retrieved December 22, 2015.
  13. ^ "Witness to Innocence". Witness to Innocence. Retrieved December 22, 2015.
  14. ^ Victorin-Vangerud, Aaron (June 1, 2011). "Sister Helen Prejean (CSJ) and Mary Ann Antrobus, June 2011". University of Minnesota. Archived from the original on February 13, 2013. Retrieved December 22, 2015.
  15. ^ "River of Fire by Helen Prejean: 9781400067305 | PenguinRandomHouse.com: Books". PenguinRandomhouse.com. Retrieved 2019-09-26.
  16. ^ "FINDING AID FOR Sr. Helen Prejean Papers". Series 005.001: University and College Commencements. DePaul University Special Collections and Archives.
  17. ^ "Blessed are the Peacemakers". Catholic Theological Union. December 6, 2022. Retrieved December 7, 2022.
  18. ^ "2016 Cardinal Joseph Bernardin Award". Catholic Theological Union. June 29, 2016. Retrieved December 7, 2022.

External links[edit]

  • Official website
  • Helen Prejean at IMDb
  • Appearances on C-SPAN
  • Angel on Death Row: Newspaper accounts of the crimes and executions of Patrick Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie, Public Broadcasting Service [1]
  • "Sister Helen Prejean: The Real Woman Behind Dead Man Walking", by John Bookser Feister, St. Anthony Messenger, April, 1996 [2]
  • "Would Jesus pull the Switch?" by Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J., Salt of the Earth 1997 [3]
  • "Conversation with Sr. Helen Prejean" by Marilyn Rodrigues, The Catholic Weekly August 17, 2003 [4]
  • The National Review and Sr. Helen Prejean, C.S.J., August 1, 2006 [5]
  • "Blood on our Hands: An Interview with Helen Prejean", by Shannon Presler, The Other Journal.com January 19, 2009 [6]
  • Walk the Talk Show with Waylon Lewis: "Sister Helen Prejean of Dead Man Walking Fame," May 2009 [7]
  • "The Death Penalty Nun," 2006 video biography [8], Trinity Wall Street
  • "Late Night Live - Dead Man Walking (1993 Australian radio broadcast) [9]