Sister Helen Prejean
Denison University has announced that Sister Helen Prejean will serve as the keynote speaker at the college’s 175th Commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 14, 2016. Prejean has been instrumental in sparking national dialogue on the death penalty and helping to shape the Catholic Church’s newly vigorous opposition to state executions. She travels around the world giving talks about her ministry. She considers herself a southern storyteller. In addition, she has lectured at Denison as a featured speaker in the college's Spectrum Series, and while on campus for two days, joined several class discussions, met with student and faculty groups, and connected with a number of local priests and pastors. For Jack Shuler, associate professor of English, Prejean’s visit offered a meaningful contribution to his class, “Dead Man Walking: Executions in America,” which examines the history of executions in the U.S. and addresses the controversy surrounding the death penalty today. It is the only course of its kind in the country.
At the Commencement ceremony, Prejean will be conferred with the degree, Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa. Her address to the graduates and their families is titled, “Dead Man Walking: The Journey Continues.”
Prejean is a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph. She spent her first years with the Sisters teaching religion to junior high school students. Realizing that being on the side of poor people is an essential part of the Gospel she moved into the St. Thomas Housing Project in New Orleans and began working at Hope House from 1981 to 1984. During this time, she was asked to correspond with a death row inmate Patrick Sonnier at Angola. She agreed and became his spiritual adviser. After witnessing his execution, she wrote a book about the experience. The result was “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States.” It became a movie, an opera and a play for high schools and colleges.
Since 1984, Prejean has divided her time between educating citizens about the death penalty and counseling individual death row prisoners. She has accompanied six men to their deaths. In doing so, she began to suspect that some of those executed were not guilty. This realization inspired her second book, “The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions,” which was released by Random House in December of 2004.
Presently, Prejean is at work on her next book, “River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey.”