Prejean donates papers to DePaul

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, February 27, 2011

Students at DePaul University in Chicago and at other universities will benefit from Sister Helen Prejean’s donation of her anti-death penalty papers and archives.

The donation, which was announced at the Vincentian university’s Loop campus on Feb. 9, includes letters to and from Death Row inmates and governors from across the country, said Sister Helen, 71. There are also personal journals, notes from meetings, speeches and other artifacts spanning a period of 30 years. The papers include manuscripts for her books, “The Death of Innocents” and “Dead Man Walking.”

A Sister of St. Joseph, Sister Helen came to national prominence after writing “Dead Man Walking,” an account of her relationship with Patrick Sonnier, who was put to death in Louisiana in 1984. She had become his spiritual advisor in 1981 and accompanied him to the death chamber.

“Dead Man Walking,” published in 1993, was on the New York Times best seller list for more than 30 weeks, and was adapted into a film.

Sister Helen said she never intended to become an anti-death penalty activist. But after Sonnier was executed, she walked out of the death chamber and thought, “People don’t know about that. I have to tell them.”

She chose DePaul to continue to tell the story because of its strong Catholic identity and its commitment to social justice, she said. DePaul’s College of Law is home to the Center for Justice in Capital Cases, headed by Andrea Lyon, professor of law and a leading death-penalty attorney.

“They would make the papers available to students, and not just to their students,” Sister Helen said.

She said nuns owe St. Vincent de Paul, the university’s patron and the apostle of charity, a debt of gratitude. “St. Vincent de Paul found a way to get the nuns out of the convent and into the streets to serve the poor. He did that in 1610 and paved the way for other religious orders.”

Although she is based in New Orleans, Prejean has spent plenty of time in Illinois, working with the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty as well as many Chicago-area churches. She has communicated with former Gov. George Ryan, who put a moratorium on executions in Illinois and emptied Death Row before leaving office in 2000.

Her visit came as Gov. Pat Quinn, who has identified himself as a Catholic, was deciding whether to sign a law that would abolish the death penalty in Illinois. The bill was passed by the state legislature in January.

In an appearance on WTTW’s “Chicago Tonight,” Sister Helen said the bill on the governor’s desk had nothing to do with the timing of the announcement that she had donated her papers to De- Paul. “That’s God’s timing,” she said. At a Feb. 9 news conference, Sister Prejean said she has written Quinn urging him to sign a bill recently passed by the Illinois Legislature to abolish the death penalty.