Sister Helen Prejean, from New Orleans, and a graduate of a St. Joseph’s School in Baton Rouge, LA spent three days in St. Louis, visiting with all the members of the school community. She spoke to everyone from students to retirees; and of course, taking in the opening-night of the school’s daring and challenging play: “Dead Man Walking.”
Sister Prejean, CSJ is author of the international best seller “Dead Man Walking: an eyewitness account of the death penalty.”
Her life’s work has been serving the poor of New Orleans (she moved into the housing projects of the Big Easy) to learn more about life of the poorest of the poor and she became the spiritual advisor of convicted murder Elmo Patrick Sonnier who was put to death by electrocution in Louisiana in the early 1980s.
Her address to the student body of St. Joe was part of the school’s “Value Driven Women’s” program at school.
“So many families have been victimized by violence in New Orleans. This has been my cause since I wrote about a man on death row in 1982,” she said.
She was thrilled to be in St. Louis for the visit.
“I am a St. Joseph's graduate (in Louisiana) and I see myself in these kids. It is so great to be alive in high school,” she said proudly.
“Doing the play “Dead Man Walking” is such a stretch, especially for high school students. It is such a serious play, and to think, all of the parts are played by women. That is wonderful,” she regaled.
“Tim Robbins (when he wrote the play) said let’s hold off doing it commercially and let’s entrust it to the young people to do.”
Sister Prejean drove her audience of students and staff into total silence as she talked about her life as it related to her work, trying to end the Death Penalty.
Today, more than 30 states, including Missouri still have this form of punishment.
First, she told the girls how race plays such an important role in relationship to the death penalty. She challenged them to recall if anyone who graduated from St. Joe was ever on Death Row? No hands went up.
“Did you know, 70 percent of all prisoners on Death Row are African American,” she asked.
She told the girls the Death Penalty is one of the moral issues of our time.
She compared the “Death Penalty” to something like Jesus on the Cross.
“You have two arms stretched out. One arm represents murderers and the other arm represents the victims and their families.”
She said we all need more dialoguing on this subject. She believes some habitual and hardened criminals need to be incarcerated their entire adult lives. She just doesn’t believe they should suffer the Death Penalty.
She had an auditorium of youthful believers on her side this week in Frontenac.