‘Death Row’s Nun’ offers new insights into Sister Prejean’s life, ministry

“Helen Prejean: Death Row’s Nun,” a new book about the well-known anti-death penalty advocate, was published in September by Liturgical Press in Collegeville as part of its “People of God” series.

The book, authored by Joyce Duriga, editor of the Chicago Catholic, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago, is a quick read at just under 90 pages. But Duriga packs plenty of information about her subject into those pages, and her crisp writing style makes the book hard to put down.

Many people know the story of Sister Prejean from her best-selling book, “Dead Man Walking,” and the hit movie starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. But Duriga draws from three personal conversations with Sister Prejean and from the nun’s archives housed at DePaul University in Chicago to shine further light on Sister Prejean’s early years growing up in Louisiana, how at age 40 she “awakened to the Gospel of justice,” her ministry to Patrick Sonnier and other death-row inmates, and her work to expose injustices in the criminal justice system.

Duriga also writes about the making of the movie-version of “Dead Man Walking” and devotes a chapter to the Catholic Church’s teaching on the death penalty, including how a letter Sister Prejean wrote to St. John Paul II led to changes in the second edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church regarding its teaching on capital punishment.

The Visitor recently interviewed Duriga about her book. The following are edited excerpts from the interview:

Q: The book has seven chapters, the last focused on Sister Prejean and “Her Thoughts on the Death Penalty.” If you would write an eighth chapter reflecting on your experiences with this book project, what would you write about?

Duriga: First, I wouldn’t procrastinate as much! And I would write about how my eyes were opened. … Sister Helen has taught me that the death penalty is really about us. It’s about our reaction, what it does to society, what it does to people involved in it — everyone from the warden on death row, to the guards, to victims’ families. And it affects everyone differently. I learned about how victims’ families sometimes don’t want to pursue the death penalty, but people tell them they must not have loved their son or husband or wife enough if they don’t want this person killed. It also opened my eyes to how broken our prison system is and how broken our legal system is.

I also learned a lot about how it’s a fiery issue. I would be having dinner with friends and tell them what I was working on. People have strong opinions on the death penalty. I think that made the book better because it forced me to dig into answering some of the questions people have.

Q: Did you learn anything new about Sister Prejean in the process of writing this book?

Duriga: Yes — she wasn’t into social justice until her 40s. She had a conversion kind of experience. When she was younger, she thought nuns should be teachers. They should be apolitical. When she was about 42, I think, another religious sister — Sister Marie Augusta Neal — came to speak to her sisters’ community about how believing in the Gospel required you to help people on the fringes. You have to seek justice. … Sister Helen said it was like a veil just dropped, that every objection she had to why religious women should not get involved in political or social justice issues was decimated by Sister Marie. So much so that Sister Helen decided to pick up and move to the housing projects in New Orleans, which at the time was one of the most dangerous cities in the United States, and minister to the poor. She talks about learning the Gospel at the feet of these people in the projects — people she was teaching how to read or was ministering to in other ways.

Q: Has writing this book impacted your faith life?

Duriga: It’s made me appreciate more that many things aren’t black and white. I can compare it to the violence in Chicago. People will say about some of the people, “Well, they should get jobs.” Or, “They should work their way out of this.” But you start to talk to people in these neighborhoods, and you hear their stories, and you hear about the situations they grew up in.

While I had parents who could give me some guidance, some of these people don’t necessarily have that. So, it’s given me a deeper appreciation for a few things: Don’t judge. Find out people’s stories. Before you make a judgment, take time to listen.

“Helen Prejean: Death Row’s Nun” is available from Litpress.org and Amazon. Duriga is working on another book for the “People of God” series about Father Augustus Tolton (1854-1897), a former slave and the first African-American diocesan priest, who ministered in Illinois. It is slated to be published in 2018.

Joe Towalski is the editor for The Central Minnesota Catholic Magazine.

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