We don’t think about it. Even when somebody dies.
Capital punishment — the death penalty — is not a hot issue for a lot of us. It’s hard to get worked up defending the sanctity of the life of a murderer. Unless you are Sister Helen Prejean.
She’s still at it, according to a new book by Joyce Duriga, “Helen Prejean: Death Row’s Nun” (Liturgical Press, $11.99).
When many of us think of Sister Helen, the image might come to mind of Susan Sarandon, the actress who played her in “Dead Man Walking.” The 1996 Oscar-nominated movie was based on Sister Helen’s bestselling book of the same name. Sarandon won the Oscar for her portrayal of Sister Helen.
Duriga’s book digs deeper than the movie. She begins with a compelling story that drags you into the tragedy of murder and capital punishment and what motivated Sister Helen to become a devoted voice for life when few cared.
Duriga, editor of the Chicago Catholic, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago, and a former associate editor of Our Sunday Visitor, tells the story straight up. Sister Helen Prejean shows up at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola to be with Patrick Sonnier, a 34-year-old white male.
He and his brother were convicted of murdering a teenage couple. The girl was raped before they killed her. His brother received two life sentences. Patrick was given the death penalty.
Sister Helen walks with him to the electric chair, holding his arm. He is executed quietly, silently, secretly at 12:15 a.m., April 5, 1984.
Duriga then tells us the story of Sister Helen, who as a young girl saw herself as a future mystic. She joined the Sisters of St. Joseph at age 18 in 1957 after high school. She was raised in a faith-filled, upper-middle-class family, and her early years in religious life were dedicated to Catholic education.
Her own epiphany took place in 1981 when she went to serve at St. Thomas Housing Project, which was a dangerous place for anyone in New Orleans at that time. But for Sister Helen, she began then to know the culture of poverty, racism and, yes, violence that would lead her to a commitment to social justice. And bring her to the issue of capital punishment.
She was introduced to Pat Sonnier when she was asked to correspond with a man on death row. Duriga explores Sister Helen’s growing awareness of the horror of Sonnier’s crime, but the growing feeling as well “that everyone has a right to life no matter the worst thing he or she did.”
Sister Helen explains that after Sonnier was executed, she “left the death chamber ... knowing God was telling her to be a witness to the secret ritual of legal execution and to share her experience with the world.”
Sister Helen would directly influence Pope St. John Paul II, as well as Popes Benedict and Francis, in a deepening Catholic understanding that now rejects capital punishment in virtually any circumstance.
It’s not a popular issue. But Sister Helen will “continue to share with people what God had her witness on that fateful day in Angola Prison.” Duriga’s book is a faithful telling of this incredible story of one nun’s courage.
Note to readers: In July 2016, I wrote about an old friend reaching 93. He faithfully sent old-fashioned letters in pen on paper that reflected a deep and abiding Catholic faith over the decades of his life. He was “Big Bill Bandle” of St. Louis. “I get a kick out of my granddaughters ‘dreading’ the day I die,” Bill noted in his last letter to me. “I remind them that I hope it’s the ‘happiest’ day.” Got the news that Bill peacefully welcomed his happiest day. Pray for us, Bill.
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Indiana.