To the unsuspecting eye, Sister Helen Prejean looks like any ordinary nun. She may be of a small stature, but her voice is powerful.
“Grace is when you wake up,” said Prejean, her words hanging in the air, piercing the silence of the Egan Chapel of St. Ignatius of Loyola.
Prejean is a well-known advocate against the death penalty and has written two books, “Dead Man Walking” and “The Death of Innocents,” that have gained major recognition throughout the country. In her talk, she addressed not only the death penalty, but shared her personal conversations with death-row inmates.
Her first book, “Dead Man Walking,” became an Academy Award winning film in 1996, as well as an opera and play. The book explores her experience with her first death-row inmate, Pat Sonnier, who was sentenced to death after killing two teens, one of whom he raped.
A Louisiana native, Prejean became a part of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille in 1957 and received her Bachelor of Arts degree from St. Mary’s Dominican College in English and education in 1957.
Her second book is titled “The Death of Innocents” and is the story of two other death-row inmates Prejean served as a spiritual advisor for while they awaited their deaths. Throughout her books, Prejean gives her insight into the the criminal justice system, a system she thinks is human and therefore full of fault.
Junior Jimmy Lipko is one of the leaders of Canisius Academy, a club on campus that aims to create a safe space for students to discuss their faith. The club organized the discussion with Prejean.
“The topic of the death penalty has been a hot topic issue since the declaration of the Pope, and she is so well-known. She’s been to Italy and has met two Popes and is known around the world so we thought she would be great to invite to Fairfield,” said Lipko.
There were few empty seats in sight as Prejean continued to talk about the changes her spirituality underwent when she became interested in activism. She described her experiences working at Hope House in New Orleans, a shelter where the impoverished are able to find a warm meal and a helping hand from people like Prejean.
“I found that African American people became my teachers of the ‘other’ America,” said Prejean in her prominent Southern accent.
Junior Isaac Bode was one of the many students in attendance.
“I definitely got a new, I would say, point of view on how I would view the death penalty,” Bode commented. “Before I would just say that they are criminals who deserve to die, but she showed a lot of different aspects of it I didn’t think of, like the idea that death doesn’t solve it.”
Prejean’s third novel, entitled “River of Fire,” will be released in April 2019. It is a prequel to “Dead Man Walking” and goes into detail about how she became interested in the death penalty.
At the end of her speech, Prejean paused, looked out over the audience and said, “You know what gives me hope? The people.”
Cheers and clapping from the audience reverberated throughout the chapel.