Sister Helen Prejean, author of the bestselling Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, will speak at 7 p.m. Monday, February 18 in McShain Performing Arts Center at Rosemont College. The lecture is free and open to all. The event is sponsored by the Institute for Ethical Leadership and Social Responsibility at Rosemont College.
Sister Prejean will present “Dead Man Walking: The Journey Continues.” She has become a leading American advocate for the abolition of the death penalty and will speak about how she educates citizens about capital punishment. Sister Prejean’s books will be available for purchase and she will participate in a book signing after the event.
Prejean is a nationally recognized human rights activist and has been the subject of many interviews on national broadcasts, including 60 Minutes, NBC’s Today Show, ABC’s World News Tonight, Larry King Live (radio), and National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition and Fresh Air. She has been featured in the New York Times, Vogue, and Good Housekeeping magazines and several other print media. Dead Man Walking was number one on the New York Times Best Seller List for thirty-one weeks. It also was an international best-seller and has been translated into ten different languages.
Born in 1939 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Prejean joined the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille in 1957 (now known as the Congregation of St. Joseph) and received a bachelor’s degree in English and education from St. Mary’s Dominican College, New Orleans in 1962. In 1973, she earned a master’s degree in religious education from St. Paul’s University in Ottawa, Canada. She has been the religious education director at St. Frances Cabrini Parish in New Orleans, the formation director for her religious community, and has taught junior and senior high school students. In 2006, she received an honorary doctorate from the University of Portland.
She began her prison ministry in 1981 when she dedicated her life to the poor of New Orleans. While living in the St. Thomas housing project, she became a pen pal with Patrick Sonnier, the convicted killer of two teenagers, sentenced to die in the electric chair of Louisiana’s Angola State Prison.
Upon Sonnier’s request, Prejean repeatedly visited him as his spiritual advisor. In doing so, she became familiar with the Louisiana execution process. Prejean turned her experiences into Dead Man Walking, an autobiographical account of her relationship with Sonnier and other inmates on death row. The book not only made the 1994 American Library Associates Notable Book List, it was also nominated for a 1993 Pulitzer Prize.
In January 1996, the book was developed into a major motion picture starring Susan Sarandon as Prejean and Sean Penn as a death row inmate. The movie received four Oscar nominations including Tim Robbins for best director, Sean Penn for best actor, Susan Sarandon for best actress, and Bruce Springsteen’s “Dead Man Walking” for best song. Susan Sarandon won the award for best actress.
Fifteen years after beginning her crusade, the Roman Catholic sister has witnessed five executions in Louisiana and today educates the public about the death penalty by lecturing, organizing, and writing. As the founder of Survive, a victim's advocacy group in New Orleans, she continues to counsel not only inmates on death row, but the families of murder victims as well.
Sister Prejean’s second book, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions, was published in December 2004. In it, she tells the story of two men, Dobie Gillis Williams and Joseph O’Dell, whom she accompanied to their executions. In The Death of Innocents she takes the reader through all the evidence, including evidence the juries never heard either due to the incompetence of the defense lawyers or the rigid formalities of court procedure. She believes both of them were innocent.
The Institute for Ethical Leadership and Social Responsibility was launched in August 2011. Its aim, closely related to the historic mission of Rosemont College, is to understand and promote the essential connection between ethical leadership and social responsibility. Under the guidance of its director, Dr. Alan Preti, the Institute works toward this goal through research and scholarship, teaching and practice, and leadership.
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Founded in 1921 by the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, Rosemont College is a private, coeducational institution in the Catholic educational tradition that—through close mentoring, excellent academic support, and student life service—focuses on nurturing the strengths of each student. Located on the Main Line, 11 miles west of Philadelphia, on the border of Montgomery and Delaware Counties, the nationally-acclaimed, traditional Undergraduate College confers B.A., B.S., and B.F.A. degrees in twenty-three majors. Rosemont College also includes the Schools of Graduate and Professional Studies, which are open to both women and men.