Sr. Helen Prejean speaks on death penalty, social justice topics

By Madison McClellan and Vinny Ramundo

Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking and The Death of Innocents, spoke to the McNicholas community and invited guests on March 20.  Prejean, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph, McNicholas’s founding order, is an activist working to abolish the death penalty in all 50 states.

Born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Prejean’s work started with visits to prison inmates. She now works as an advocate against the death penalty and has founded the group Survive, a victim’s advocacy group in New Orleans, which helps victims of families of homicide and other related crimes to cope.

Theology teacher Teresa Davis decided to reach out to Prejean as a follow up to the junior/senior summer reading book, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. Prejean is also connected to the school through the Congregation of St. Joseph, and Davis overall felt “her tireless work is an inspiration for all.”

Davis said Prejean has shaped her beliefs, saying, “She really affirmed my life of how I live, what I believe, how I believe it.”

“Sr. Helen is an example of the impact one person can have for the marginalized of the world.  I believe Sr. Helen is one of the great prophets of our day.  Over the last 35 years, Sr. Helen has visited the MHS community a number of times, so I have had the blessing of hearing her speak with us before.  I am grateful for this opportunity to listen to her and soak in her presence, a ‘down to earth’ presence of compassion and humility.  No one mentioned that she has been nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize,” Theology teacher John Norman said.

Theology teacher Teresa Davis and Sr. Helen Prejean share a hug after first seeing each other. “The students parted like the red sea just so she could see me,” Davis said on meeting Prejean.

The hour long all-school assembly on March 20 included guests from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati offices, the Athenaeum of Ohio, representatives from the Friends of Batahola, Guardian Angels, Immaculate Heart of Mary, St. Xavier, Mercy McAuley, Roger Bacon, members of Churches Active in Northside, and the Congregation of Sisters of St. Joseph.

Before she delivered her address in the gym, Prejean met with Milestone staff reporters and other students as she began to simultaneously sign copies of her books, answer interview questions, and converse with everyone around her. “You always have to presume goodness,” Prejean shared with Milestone staffers during her book signing before the assembly.

Her energy seemed to create a human magnet that no one could escape before either engaging in deep discussion, taking a picture, or being on the receiving end of a witty joke. “Thank you for your courage and your faith, you’re an inspiration,” a visitor having a booked signed by Prejean said.

Prejean saw the effects of death row first hand, and felt the need to take action, and shared “I never dreamed I was going to write a book; I just knew that I had to do something.” Prejean talked on how she felt the need to let the community know what the reality of death row was, due to believing there would be a change in the policies. “If the American people, if they could be brought close to this, they will not stand for this.”

Prejean discussed the death penalty through the lens of the Church, the law, and as a voter searching for candidates upholding the dignity of all life. “There’s more to all of us than our worst act.” Prejean said.  She talked on how everyone can improve in their lives, and said, “You can always grow, you can always be more than you ever thought you were gonna be.” Along with capital punishment, she discussed border control, saying, “As if it can ever be in the spirit of Jesus to separate a child from its parents at the border.” Prejean also touched on climate change, immigration, euthanasia, physician assisted suicide, and abortion, sharing “We are pro-life not just for innocent life, but for guilty life as well. Pro-life across the board.”

Echoing Pope Francis’ message, she encouraged students to engage in productive dialogue with those whom they may disagree.  “That’s the way we grow,” Prejean said.  She also told stories of her experiences of praying with the families of murder victims.  Prejean relayed the words of a father of a young victim: He said, “People think forgiveness is weak… Here’s how I see it… They killed our boy, but I’m not going to let them kill me.”

Students from each class were captivated by Prejean’s visit to McNicholas:

“Thanks to our summer reading and our experiences in morality class, we were able to be exposed to the issue… but I think It’s a nice perspective to see someone who has actually been there face to face with the people who are going through this trauma and this ordeal.” – Senior Danielle Robben

“It showed me how much religion can play an aspect in someone’s striving to cause change and she is clearly extremely passionate about causing a positive change in the world and it’s because of her faith which is cool… I did not realize how common it is for accused people who are on death row to actually be innocent.  I thought the justice system would have been set up to the point where it would pretty much be impossible for someone who is innocent to be put to death, which that seemed insane to me.  What she was talking about was really eye opening…She was definitely very inspiring.  She was an incredibly personable speaker.” – Senior Jack Keri

“Although I had already not been a supporter of the death penalty, Sister Prejean opened my mind to the fact that there is absolutely no reason that someone should receive Capital Punishment for any crime.” – Sophomore Madeline Daley

“It was more broad than what I expected.  She talked about more issues than just the death penalty and how we can incorporate our Catholic faith into our political views.” – Junior Dominic Daley

“Something that really stood out to me was her view on what young people can accomplish. It made me feel empowered and like someone believed that young people can do something to benefit the community and change lives.”  – Sophomore Emily Taylor

“She talked about pro-life in general but she also talked about not just focusing on one issue which does tend to happen a lot. It’s hard to think about [the death penalty] when you don’t know and it’s still an abstract concept. I think it’s very cool that she knows what she believes in and is willing to advocate for that.” – Sophomore Kristen Van Huss

“I feel like I agree with more than I did and I learned more…I like how she talked about her book, and that made us really understand where she was coming from.  She was really good and I would like to see her again.” — Freshman Maria Zerhusen

Sr. Helen Prejean meets with Theology faculty members Teresa Davis and Mary Beth Sandmann. As Prejean walked through the front doors of McNicholas, her eyes met those of theology teacher Teresa Davis who worked hard to make the appearance and assembly possible. Prejean beamed with excitement and said, “I am overjoyed!”


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