Woman Making History #73: Sister Helen Prejean


sister_helen.jpgMany of us know Sister Helen Prejean only as Susan Sarandon's character in Dead Man Walking. As it turns out, though, writing the book on which the film was based, and ministering to the man featured in the film, is only the tip of this amazing woman's iceberg.

Prejean was born in 1939 in Louisiana. In 1957, she joined the St. Joseph of Medaille order. After joining the order, Prejean went to college, receiving her B.A. in English and Education in 1962. She has taught high school students and worked as a religious director.

Prejean's ministering to death row inmates began in 1981, when she became pen pals with Patrick Sonnier, a man convicted of killing two teenagers and facing the electric chair. It was Prejean's experience with Sonnier that led her to write Dead Man Walking. The book was on the New York Times' Best Seller List for 31 weeks.

After Sonnier's execution, Prejean continued to correspond with and minister to death row inmates in her native Louisiana. She has witnessed five executions and spends much of her time speaking out against capital punishment. She also started Survive, an organization set up to help the families and friends of murder victims. In 2004, she published a second book, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions, in which she argues for the innocence of two men she saw executed, Dobie Gillis Williams and Joseph O'Dell.

Prejean served on the board of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty from 1985–1995, serving as Chairperson of the Board from 1993–1995. She is also the honorary chair of the Moratorium Campaign, which advocates for a worldwide end to the death penalty.

Prejean is also an anti-abortion activist.


Sister Helen Prejean's Official Website
The Catholic Weekly

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