Sister Helen Prejean continues as abolitionist for 25 years

Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, signs her books after delivering a speech at Hendrix College Monday, Oct 19. Sister Helen travels the country educating the public about the death penalty.
Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, signs her books after delivering a speech at Hendrix College Monday, Oct 19. Sister Helen travels the country educating the public about the death penalty.

CONWAY — The next book by Sister Helen Prejean, best-selling author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated book “Dead Man Walking,” will detail her inner dialogue as she accompanied Patrick Sonnier to his execution 25 years ago.
Sister Helen spoke to a large crowd at Hendrix College in Conway Oct. 19 as the featured guest lecturer for the Willson Lecture Series hosted by the college.
Sister Helen began her speech by reading the prelude to her unpublished third book, “The River of Fire,” which details her spiritual journey from a Catholic nun who worked as a youth minister to spiritual advisor of convicted men on death row. Sonnier was executed by Louisiana in 1984. The book will also describe how her own spiritual journey grew into her current mission of educating citizens about the death penalty and working toward its end in the United States.
“We can’t cause our own enlightenment,” she said. “When I woke up, I moved into the housing project (behind the house where she lived in New Orleans). They were my teachers.”
In fact, Sister Helen admits until she moved into the inner-city St. Thomas housing project in New Orleans, she only knew two black people. Sister Helen said she had never seen this side of America.
“I came from privilege. My father was a lawyer,” she said. “I only knew African Americans because they were servants of my family. I didn’t know any as peers.”
In 1981 Sister Helen was asked to write prison inmates and eventually became the pen pal and spiritual advisor to Patrick Sonnier, a convicted killer. Sister Helen began researching the crime that landed Sonnier on death row. A gruesome crime, Sonnier and his brother murdered two teenagers who were on a date. Their bodies were found shot, execution-style, at the local lover’s lane, Sister Helen said.
After reading the newspaper accounts, Sister Helen said she wondered “how can I be a spiritual advisor to this man?” She said she felt the nudge then to visit the families of the victims but held back because she thought they would not want to see her.
“Because I didn’t follow that nudge, I waited too long,” she said. “I met them at the worst possible time — at the prison pardon board meeting.”
She said the girl’s father stormed past her and was furious of her letter of support for Sonnier. However, she said the hero of the story was the father of the murdered boy, Lloyd LeBlanc.
“He had the gift of grace. He approached me and said, ’Sister, where have you been? We’ve had no one to talk to. The pressure of the death penalty is wearing on us,’” she said.
Sister Helen said she could not believe she had done things so wrong.
“When you look at the cross, on one arm is the criminal and on the other arm is the victim’s family,” she said. “We have to reach out to both.”
Sister Helen said she began praying with LeBlanc at a small chapel where he prayed daily for an hour during perpetual adoration.
“He taught me. He prayed for all of them — Patrick, Patrick’s mother, who had turned into a hermit — all of them,” she said.
She said LeBlanc told her although he really tried to be supportive of the death penalty and the execution of Sonnier but said he did not like the hatred that built inside of him.
“Society tells victims’ families, ’the death of your loved ones’ killer will bring you peace and is to honor your child,’” she said.
However, Sister Helen said more often victims’ families live in turmoil due in part to the length of time between conviction and execution.
“The act of forgiveness is an act of integrity,” she said. “Jesus called us not to be everyone’s doormat but to stand in love, not in hatred.”
Sister Helen said in the case of Sonnier, his guilt in committing the crime was never questioned, and she thought the United States justice system was sound. Later she said she discovered the justice system is not perfect and does not always convict and kill the guilty party.
In her second book, “The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions,” Sister Helen recounts the tale of two convicted murderers whom she accompanied to the death chamber, but unlike Sonnier, she believes these men to be innocent of the crimes for which they were put to death.
“In 1999, Dobie Williams was killed. He had an IQ of 65,” she said. “It was too late for Dobie when in 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to execute mentally disabled people.”
Sister Helen challenged the audience to fight for social justice.
“The way we know we’re on the right path is that this energy wells up inside of you. Even though I’ve given this talk a thousand times, it feels fresh and new each time,” she said.
Sister Helen spends her time educating the public on the death penalty, working with lawmakers and counseling families. She also serves as the honorary chairwoman of The Moratorium Campaign, the organization devoted to abolishing the death penalty.
She joined the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille in 1957 and received a bachelor’s degree in English and education from St. Mary’s Dominican College in New Orleans in 1962 and a master’s degree in religious education from St. Paul’s University in Ottawa, Canada, in 1973.
The Willson Lectures at Hendrix were established in 1956 for the purpose of bringing in speakers to discuss spiritual values, family relations and current issues, said the Rev. Wayne Clark, Hendrix College chaplain.

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