World renowned for your prison ministry and outspoken advocacy for the dignity of human life, you have become one of the world’s foremost crusaders against the death penalty. Through your ministry, your teaching and writing, and your activism, you have shed light and understanding on one of the great moral issues facing our world.
As a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph you began your prison ministry in 1981, dedicating your life to the poor of New Orleans. While living in the St. Thomas Housing Project, you became pen pals with Patrick Sonnier, the convicted killer of two teenagers who was sentenced to die in the electric chair. The story of your spiritual guidance to Sonnier was the subject of your best-selling book, Dead Man Walking, which in turn became an acclaimed feature film of the same name.
You did not stop there. Your second book, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions, published in 2004, tells the story of two men, Dobie Gillis Williams and Joseph O’Dell, whom you accompanied to their executions. Your belief in their innocence and your critical assessment of the death penalty system challenged the legal and religious arguments used to justify the death penalty. In 2015, when you visited Stonehill to deliver our annual Saint Andre Lecture, you delighted us with your wisdom and your humor, even as you compelled us to think more deeply about the dignity of life.
You have shared your knowledge and passion for justice with many organizations: you served on the board of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty for 10 years, including two years as chair. You are a member of Amnesty International, an honorary member of Murder Victim Families for Reconciliation, and founder of the Moratorium Campaign. You are also founder of the Ministry Against the Death Penalty and Survive, a victim’s advocacy group in New Orleans, through which you continue to counsel not only inmates on death row, but also the families of murder victims.
For your lifetime of devotion to the compassion of Jesus, your expression of his mercy and justice, and your commitment to stand side-by-side with those who are outcasts in our society, we are proud to bestow upon you, Sister Helen Prejean, honoris causa, the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters.