Prejean captivates crowd

“Nuns don’t do well in Hollywood movies.”

These were the words of Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty and Great Issues Committee speaker, last Thursday, April 24, in St. Francis Xavier College Church to a crowd of more than 800.

Prejean, who is strongly opposed to the death penalty, began her prison ministries while dedicating her life to the poor in New Orleans in 1981.

What began as a pen pal relationship with death-row prisoner Patrick Sonnier soon turned into a crusade to inform the world about the human side to the death penalty. Her book was later made into a major Hollywood film.

More than 20 years ago, Prejean found herself on the other side of “the great American tapestry,” the side with all the knots and tears. She was in the projects of New Orleans at the St. Thomas housing project, where she saw true racism first hand.

Black people who were murdered were hardly mentioned, while the white people killed were on the front page.

She began the written relationship with Sonnier, not expecting much of a response. What she got, however, was a call to be a friend.

“The greatest gift we can give another is our presence,” Prejean said.

Sonnier asked Prejean to visit him in prison, something for which she was not prepared.

“I could not believe how human he looked,” Prejean said. “I was looking into a real face.”

Prejean went on to tell the story of Sonnier and her experiences with his death by electric chair.

Sonnier had been convicted of a double murder, leaving his mother ousted by most of the community. However, the father of one of Sonnier’s victims came to her with a gift and said he did not place the blame on her or the way she raised Sonnier.

“You have to deal with the empty chair,” Prejean said. “Before and after an execution, the victim is still dead. Does an execution actually provide closure?”

Prejean ended her speech by holding a question-and-answer session and then reminding the audience to contact their senators and representatives in support of ending the death penalty.

GIC Chair John Eckert said he did not expect such a large crowd. The audience ended the evening by presenting Prejean with a standing ovation.