Sr. Helen Prejean, CSJ, a well-known advocate for the abolition of the death penalty, delivered the Center for Social Concern’s Fourth Annual Rev. Bernie Clark, CSC.  In a talk entitled “Building Justice in the World: Confronting Evil,” she described the personal experiences and beliefs which motivate her work.

Sr. Prejean’s book, DEAD MAN WALKING, was published in 1993 and was later made into a successful movie. The book was inspired by her correspondence with a man on death row. A finalist for the Nobel Peace Prize, she has been awarded many honors for her work, including the Laetare Medal from Notre Dame in 1996.

“Can you all handle southern?” Sr. Prejean quipped as she stood behind the podium. She related her experience of growing up in Baton Rouge in the time of Jim Crowe, with African American servants. Though she was deeply religious in her youth, she never connected this faith to the social movements taking place around her. When she joined the convent, she had no awareness of the social justice issues she would become involved with later in life.

“I wanted to be a mystic like St. Teresa of Avila,” she said with a smile. In her community, she distinguished between spiritual nuns and social justice nuns.  During the Civil Rights movement, for example, she stayed “in the laundry room playing songs on [her] guitar.” This division soon ended when she and her order were bused to Terra Haute, Indiana, for a three-day social justice seminar, where she had to confront her belief that the world would always be unfair, and there was nothing she could do about it. She shared the phrase that “woke me up”: “Integral to the good news that Jesus taught to the poor is that they would be poor no longer.”

At first, she was uncertain of what to do with this knowledge. “It was scary,” she reflected. “But I was awake. The story of grace is always about God waking us up.”

She began working in the St. Thomas housing project in New Orleans, where she was soon asked to become a pen pal to a man on death row, Patrick Sonnier, a convicted killer of two teenagers. To her surprise, he wrote back, asked her to visit him, and eventually asked her to become his spiritual advisor. When he was executed two years later, she was the only one allowed to be with him.

The unifying theme of her experiences was the realization that it is not only the innocents in society who have dignity. The crimes and actions of the people on death row were evil, but not the people themselves. Sr. Prejean sees this distinction between the act and the person as crucial in serving out real justice.

One of Sr. Prejean’s most moving encounters was with the father of one of Sonnier’s victims. She recalled being surprised when he approached her and asked her to pray with him.  As they prayed the Rosary together in an adoration chapel at 4 a.m., he taught her that “forgiveness was the only way to escape all-consuming hate,” and in this way the death penalty was an obstacle to true healing.

“They killed my boy,” the victim’s father said, “but I’m not going to let them kill me.”

Sr. Prejean described her journey in social justice as constantly being “surprised by grace.”  She encouraged her audience, particularly the students in the room, to advance human dignity by working to abolish the death penalty.

Liz Everett is a sophomore PLS and English major and loves attending lectures whenever she is not reading. Contact her at