Anti-death penalty nun presented with St. Vincent de Paul award


Nadia Carolina Hernandez

Sister Helen Prejean, an anti-death penalty activist and Catholic nun, said her work began when she became pen pals with an incarcerated man named Patrick Sonnier.

At 43 years old, Sister Helen Prejean wrote letters to Patrick Sonnier, the incarcerated killer of two teenagers who was sentenced to die via electric chair at Louisiana’s Angola State Prison. 

After writing back and forth for some time, Prejean visited Sonnier at the prison. He asked Prejean to become his spiritual advisor. Prejean, knowing the battle would be rough but wanting to help Sonnier grow in his faith, said yes.

Prejean said she never expected her life to become what it is now. 

“I was just writing letters,” she said.

But for the two years leading up to Sonnier’s execution, Prejean’s anti-death penalty activism formed slowly as she was more and more exposed to the life of someone on death row. 

Following the death of Sonnier, her activism sprung into action. Now, 40 years later, Prejean is 83-years-old and is still fighting for the death penalty to be abolished completely.

“[Being Sonnier’s spiritual advisor] was a real direct experience that everybody’s worth more than the worst thing they’ve ever done in their life,” Prejean said. “Human beings always had this transcendence, we are made the image and likeness of God. And so you can never define a human being by the act. He and his brother [did] this terrible thing with killing these kids and he was so remorseful about what happened.”

On Wednesday, Sept. 28, DePaul President Rob Manuel bestowed Prejean with the university’s highest honor, the St. Vincent de Paul award. It is given on very special occasions to people who “exemplify the spirit of the university’s patron by serving God through addressing the needs of the human family,” according to the Division of Mission and Ministry (DMM).

“When I thought about the award I immediately thought of Sister Helen, and I was so surprised when I found out DePaul had not already awarded her this honor,” Vice President for the DMM Fr. Guillermo Campuzano, CM, said. “I see in her something like [Saint] Vincent had: the belief that if people are organized, if they are informed of injustice, that they will work to do good. Sister Helen has such a positive view of the human person’s desire to do good even as she has seen some of the worst of humanity and dehumanizing and racist systems. Vincent had this too.  She also has the strong faith that Vincent had, which makes her a good candidate for an award in his name.”

Prejean said the realization that she needed to tell Sonnier’s story and become an activist for ending the death penalty came after she witnessed firsthand Sonnier die via electric chair. (Nadia Carolina Hernandez)


“I’m the one who woke up,” Prejean said to the crowd, holding a microphone to her lips. Her face already told everyone in the room that she had seen a level of darkness most people will never see. 

“I was coming out of the execution chamber,” Prejean said in an interview with The DePaulia, talking about the after-effects of watching Sonnier be killed in the electric chair. “It was the middle of the night. They bring me in a prison vehicle [and] deposit me at the gates. And the first thing I did was throw up.”

Prejean said she was the only one allowed to be in the room with Sonnier when he died. She said the executioners would put a mask on the people on death row to protect the witnesses from seeing the facial expressions of the people being killed, but the witnesses could still see the body jolting until the shocks stopped.

After throwing up, Prejean said she was hit with a realization.

“The realization said: the people are good,” Prejean said. “They just haven’t been exposed. And that was going to be my job. I’m a witness. I gotta tell his story.”

Following the death of Sonnier, Prejean went on to write a book titled “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States.” The book was later adapted into a movie that was released in 1995, which she helped create. Her journey also inspired her to write two additional books: “The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions” and “River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey.”

The inspiration for her last two books have come from Prejean deciding to continue to become a spiritual advisor for six more people, all have fallen to the death penalty. 

During her time as a spiritual advisor, Prejean has also heavily impacted the Catholic Church’s opinion on the death penalty and state killing.

In 1995, Pope John Paul II released an encyclical titled Evangelium vitae — meaning The Gospel of Life. The encyclical addressed the death penalty, but had pushed it to the edge, not getting rid of the problem entirely.

“The death penalty should be rare, if not non-existent,” Prejean said, talking about what the encyclical included about the death penalty. “But then [the pope] added, but in cases of absolute necessity the state can execute. And our own [district attorney] in New Orleans, Harry Connick senior, held up that encyclical and said, ‘Every death penalty we go for is an absolutely necessity.’”

Prejean said the encyclical gave a sense of false hope. While it did help some states and regions in the world adjust their beliefs on the death penalty, some states like Louisana could not have cared less. 

“I said to the Pope, your words can be quoted for death,” Prejean said. “Because you’ve allowed the right then you’re going to leave it up to the state prosecutors to decide, and your words are going to be quoted for death.”

Before John Paul II came to St. Louis. Prejean said when he came she was just part of the conversation, but following his visit to St. Louis, he changed his views on the death penalty.

“He put the death penalty and with the other pro life issues [and said] no to abortion, no to physician assisted suicide and no to the death penalty, which is cruel and unnecessary,” Prejean said. “And then he added the magic words that I was waiting for. [Paul said:] ‘Even those among us who have done a terrible crime have a dignity that must not taken from them. And so he set up my images, he set up the volleyball over the net then Pope Francis came along and changed the Catechism (a list of principles for the Christian faith) a few years later, but built on the consciousness of who had gone before him.”

Throughout her 40 years of work, Prejean developed and collected personal papers including personal journals, notes from meetings with the Pope, letters, speeches and other artifacts. In 2011, Prejean donated her personal archives to DePaul’s Special Collections and Archives Department.

“Many universities would have loved to have her papers, but I feel DePaul is the perfect home for them,” Campuzano said. “The more Sister Helen learned about DePaul’s mission and experienced DePaul community members, the more she felt that our mission and our spirit mirrored her own. Sister Helen is also very strong in saying that she wants her papers to be accessed, to be used, to be explored by students, faculty and staff. She does not want them gathering dust. The Vincentian pragmatism we get things done, we deal with reality, we take action this is another reason her papers have a good home here. It is her deep wish as well as my own that even more people can explore her papers in our archives.”


Prejean said despite the work that has been done over the past 40 years, the work will never be done. 

“When we end the death penalty, then we’ll work on the other death penalty, which is life without parole,” Prejean said. “We got a long way to go. But I tell you what, grace wakes us up. And it also gives us the energy to do what we got to do.”

Prejean said her work will continue throughout her whole life. Prejean said teaching others about the experiences she and the people who died on death row went through is what she is meant to do. 

“The best instructors, [Prejean] said, are those who understand that education is a two-way street,” Jesse Cheng, assistant professor in the College of Law, said when reminiscing on what the most inspirational quote Prejean said during the award presentation. “Teachers learn as much from their students as their students learn from them. Sister Helen reveals true humility as a path in life — one through which we can all understand the world better by better understanding one another.”

Campuzano said everyone who was at the event got to experience the story of someone who has a heroic individual story that cannot be compared or precisely followed. 

“A key part of [Sister Helen’s] story of transformation is that she ‘just wrote a letter to someone who was incarcerated,’” Campuzano said. “She did not have a grand plan to make anti-death penalty work her life’s work.”

Prejean said anyone can make a difference in the world, it just so happened to be that she was convicted by the gospel to write a letter and now here she is, 40 years later, being handed the St. Vincent de Paul award.

“Just start by writing a letter to someone who is incarcerated,” Prejean said to some students at the event. “Who knows what will happen?”