Sister Helen Prejean Delivers Powerful Message

Dead Man Walking Author At Cristo Rey
Posted on 03/08/2017
Sister Helen and Cristo Rey Students

Speaking at Cristo Rey High School, Kansas City, Mo., on March 3, Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, urged students, faculty, staff and guests to question in their hearts what kind of people they want to be. "Learn, wake up and get involved," the advocate against the death penalty said. "We can make a difference." 

Describing herself as a storyteller and not a lecturer, Sister Helen shared her personal journey of reluctance followed by learning and then involvement. She interwove Jesus’ Gospel message to serve the poor with accounts of her encounters with persons on death row and families of victims. Throughout her presentation, she encouraged students to recognize the value of their education and to seize opportunities to learn truth and to experience the power of literature and the arts.  

Sister Helen recalled her transition from what she said was a life of privilege ministering in the suburbs to becoming a spiritual advisor to persons on death row. "The Gospel of Jesus calls us to leave privilege behind," she said. 

This message recurred persistently in Sister Helen’s life accompanied by her recognition that "Jesus is for social justice, and I didn’t know poor people." She subsequently dedicated her life to the poor of New Orleans and lived in a housing project. She said wherever she worked, she was learning. "A fire takes hold in the heart with this commitment to be a person of justice and to act in solidarity with the people," she told the audience.  

While living in the housing project, Sister Helen accepted the invitation to be a pen pal with a convicted killer on death row in a Louisiana state prison. This marked the beginning of her prison ministry and led to her becoming the inmate’s spiritual advisor. She admitted this took her into the realm of evil she had never seen – despicable crime, real pain for families suffering losses, people seeking revenge.  

This experience with prison ministry, human suffering and the state prison system was the basis for her best seller, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty. The book was developed into an award-winning movie in 1996 and more recently (2000) an opera. Sister Helen was in Kansas City for a performance of the opera at the Kauffman Center. She was able to arrange tickets for 10 Cristo Rey students to attend a weekend matinee.

Today, Sister Helen’s ministry is educating the public about the death penalty by lecturing, organizing and writing. A member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, she continues to counsel inmates on death row and families of murder victims.

The importance of ministering to families of victims was another lesson Sister Helen said she learned early in her prison work. She called not reaching out to families victimized by the first inmate she counseled "my bad mistake." Instead, the father of the murdered teenaged boy reached out to Sister Helen. She said he took her into journey of his heart and his struggles.  

"This family taught me that it’s possible with the grace of Christ not to use all life energies to get even but to stay whole," Sister Helen concluded.

This piece was written by Therese M. Horvat and appears on the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth website,

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