Sister Helen Prejean
Leading advocate for the abolition of the death penalty
About Sister Helen Prejean
Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, is known around the world for her tireless work against the death penalty. Her mission has taken her to every U.S. state and to the Vatican, where her entreaties to two popes helped shape Catholic opposition to government executions. Her commitment to social justice was ignited in 1982 after she began corresponding with Patrick Sonnier, a prisoner on death row. Two years later, she witnessed his execution and that of another death row inmate, Robert Lee Willie. Afterward, she realized that this inhumane ritual, usually performed away from the eyes of the public, would remain unchallenged until its secrecy was stripped away.
Her book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, did just that when it was published, opening a national debate on capital punishment and inspiring an Academy Award-winning movie, a play, and an opera. Prejean’s second book, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions, followed in 2004. In her latest book, River of Fire, Sister Helen Prejean shares the revelatory, intimate story of her growth as a spiritual leader, the challenges of the Catholic Church, and her belief that joy and religion are not mutually exclusive.
Following the publication of Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen Prejean embarked on a speaking tour that has lasted over 35 years. She gives around 100 talks annually across the United States and beyond in her continued campaign to educate the public about the death penalty. Her extraordinary talks bring audiences with her on her journey from a comfortable, middle-class life to the projects of New Orleans, where she began her work to support the victims of crime as well as the perpetrators, all the way to the Vatican, where she was instrumental in lifesaving changes to the Catholic Catechism. Inspiring to religious and secular audiences alike, she urges listeners to seek the truth, love ardently, and meet, head on, the suffering world.
Prejean is a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph and a lifelong Louisianian who received her B.A. in English and Education from St. Mary’s Dominican College and her M.A. in Religious Education from St. Paul’s University. When she is not continuing her activism and work with prisoners and victims’ families, she loves to share Cajun jokes, eat Southern cooking, play spirited card games, and write, exploring her fascination with the Divine spark she believes is in everyone.
When Faith Catches on Fire: My Spiritual Journey into Social Justice
In this talk, Sister Helen Prejean brings audiences with her on her journey from a comfortable, middle-class life to the projects of New Orleans, where she met a man on death row who would leave an indelible mark on her life: Patrick Sonnier. She speaks frankly of her terrible missteps in dealing with the families of Sonnier’s victims, and of the equally terrible ritual of his execution. This transformative experience inspired Prejean to dedicate her life to pursuing justice and mercy for both the victims and the perpetrators of crime. Prejean explains to audiences how class, race, and economics factor into the criminal justice system, and inspires audiences of all beliefs to embark on their own missions to create a more just world.
Praise for Sister Helen Prejean
Praise for River of Fire
Sister Prejean’s radical openness and bracing honesty about her own faith journey is as refreshing and compelling as it is demanding and questioning. If you’ve ever wondered what ‘faith’ asks of you, you must read this book. It will turn your world upside down as you witness the conversion of a pious, sheltered nun into a fiery, faithful freedom fighter for the poor and the marginal. It set my own heart on fire, as I followed her quest to set the heart of the world aflame with passion for justice.— Serene Jones, author of Call It Grace: Finding Meaning in a Fractured World
Prejean chronicles the compelling, sometimes-difficult journey to the heart of her soul and faith with wit, honesty, and intelligence. A refreshingly intimate memoir of a life in faith.— Kirkus Reviews
Saint Ignatius of Loyola challenged us to ‘go forth and set the world on fire.’ Sister Helen has definitely done that! River of Fire is her story leading up to her acclaimed book Dead Man Walking—it is thought-provoking, informative, inspiring, and funny. Read it and it will set your heart ablaze!— Mark Shriver, author of Pilgrimage: My Search for the Real Pope Francis
Praise for The Death of Innocents
A stunning work of conscience, told with restrained outrage, a sharp eye for the absurd, and an unshakeable belief in the dignity of all humans.— The San Diego Union-Tribune
Impassioned yet thoughtful. . . . Certain to promote reflection. . . . Prejean commands respect— The Christian Science Monitor
Luminous, undecorated, angry and very moving. . . . [It] tests our conception of human decency.” –The New York Times Book Review“A work of great persuasive power. It will also, I hope, become a source of outrage.— Christopher Hitchens, Los Angeles Times Book Review
Praise for Dead Man Walking
Deeply moving . . . Sister Prejean is an excellent writer, direct and honest and unsentimental. . . . She almost palpably extends a hand to her readers.— The New York Times Book Review
An immensely moving affirmation of the power of religious vocation. . . . Stunning moral clarity.— The Washington Post Book World
Here is one voice for life. We really should need no other.— The New York Review of Books
An intimate meditation on crime and punishment, life and death, justice and mercy and—above all—Christian love in its most all-embracing sense. . . . [Prejean] never shrinks from the horror of what she has seen. She never resorts to something so predictable as pathos or a play for sympathy.— Los Angeles Times
A remarkable writer . . . Prejean’s manner of describing the tortured relations among prisoners, criminal-justice officers and victims’ families would be the envy of many novelists. Even if your own views on capital punishment are set in concrete, you are sure to be moved by the force of Prejean’s personality and commitment.— Glamour
Painful and powerful . . . [Prejean’s] practical moral courage is heroic.— The New Yorker
Providing a gritty look at what really happens in the final hours of a death row inmate . . . Prejean takes readers to a place most will thankfully never know . . . adeptly probing the morality of a judicial system and a country that kills its citizens.— San Francisco Chronicle
An impassioned condemnation of capital punishment.— Cleveland Plain Dealer
This arresting account should do for the debate over capital punishment what the film footage from Selma and Birmingham accomplished for the civil rights movement: turn abstractions into flesh and blood. Tough, fair, bravely alive—you will not come away from this book unshaken.— Bill McKibben
Books by Sister Helen Prejean
Media About Sister Helen Prejean
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River of Fire
“Sister Helen Prejean is one of the great moral leaders of our time. With her landmark book, Dead Man Walking, she turned the world’s attention to the injustices of the death penalty and, in the process, helped to change Catholic teaching on the topic. Her superb new memoir, River of Fire, is the inviting and inspiring story of her early days as a Catholic sister. A born storyteller, Sister Helen leads you, with her fierce intelligence and lively wit, from her entrance into a novitiate that still practiced the traditional ways of spiritual formation, to the volcanic changes wrought by the Second Vatican Council, to her first exciting days as a junior-high school teacher, to the initial stirrings of understanding what ‘social justice’ meant in action. River of Fire is a book to read and treasure, and Sister Helen’s is a life to celebrate and honor.”—James Martin, SJ, author of Jesus: A Pilgrimage and The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything