Social Justice Advocate Sister Helen Prejean Named Commencement Speaker at Stonehill College

May 3, 2016

Sister Helen Prejean

Social justice advocate and author of the New York Times best seller “Dead Man Walking,” Sister Helen Prejean has been named Stonehill College’s Commencement speaker.

Stonehill’s 65th Commencement Ceremony will be held on Sunday, May 22nd at 10:00 a.m. on the College’s quadrangle lawn. For more details about the ceremony, including information for family and friends, visit here.

Sister Helen 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 pen pals with Patrick Sonnier, the convicted killer of two teenagers, sentenced to die in the electric chair of Louisiana’s Angola State Prison. The story of her spiritual guidance to Sonnier was the subject of her book which in turn became a feature film of the same name. For her work, the College will honor her with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.

Joining Sister Helen in receiving honorary degrees will be W.B. Mason Chairman Steven Greene, and University of Massachusetts-Boston Chancellor J. Keith Motley.  

Sister Helen Prejean – Doctor of Humane Letters

As the spiritual advisor for Patrick Sonnier while he was on death row, Sister Helen was introduced to the Louisiana execution process and thus began her advocacy on the issue. In 1993, her book “Dead Man Walking,” was published and spent 31 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List.

In January 1996, the book was developed into a major motion picture starring Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen and Sean Penn as a death row inmate. Produced by Polygram Pictures, the film was directed and written by Tim Robbins. 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. Sarandon won the award for Best Actress.

Fifteen years after beginning her crusade, the Roman Catholic nun has witnessed five executions in Louisiana and today educates the public about the death penalty by lecturing, organizing and writing.

Last year, Sister Helene visited Stonehill to discuss her second book, “The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions,” at the annual Saint Andre Lecture. In the book, she tells the story of two men, Dobie Gillis Williams and Joseph O’Dell, whom she accompanied to their executions. She believes both of them were innocent. Sister Helen is a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, which has taken a public stance against capital punishment.

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.

Sr. Helen has served on the board of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty from 1985–1995, and has served as Chairperson of the Board from 1993–1995. She is also a member of Amnesty International and an honorary member of Murder Victim Families for Reconciliation. She presently is the Honorary Chairperson of Moratorium Campaign, a group gathering signatures for a world-wide moratorium on the death penalty.

Sister Helen was born on April 21, 1939, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She joined the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille in 1957 (now known as the Congregation of St. Joseph) and received a B.A. in English and Education from St. Mary’s Dominican College, New Orleans in 1962. In 1973, she earned an M.A. 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.

Steven Greene - Doctor of Business Administration

Greene has served as chairman of W.B. Mason, the largest, privately owned office products dealer in the United States, since 1993 after spending nearly 15 years as its president. Under his leadership, the company’s revenue grew to $20 million by 1993.

A 1965 graduate of Brockton High School, Greene knew his future was in the office products business as his father Joseph took over W.B. Mason in 1963 from his father in-law. After his father’s death in 1973, Greene was thrust into a leadership role at the company where he had been working since his father took ownership in 1963.

When he became president in 1979, it was a small company with annual sales of about $3 million but Greene was eager to build upon his family’s legacy. Focusing on personalized customer service, the company’s door to door sales model revolutionized the industry and catapulted it to $20 million in sales by 1993 when Greene became chairman of the board.

Today, the company has grossed $1.65 billion in sales with over 1000 sales people, 700 trucks making deliveries across 60 plus locations throughout the United States all the while maintaining its headquarters in Brockton. The company continues to hire Stonehill graduates year after year with over 100 alumni working there today.

Outside of his work at W.B. Mason, Greene has served on the board of a number of local organizations including HarborOne for the last 23 years.  He has been a member of the Brockton Rotary Club for 37 years and served as its president in 1989-90.  

The winner of the Leo Koretz Award from the YMHA, Greene has coached hundreds of players over the years at Brockton’s YMHA. He has also twice been named a Brockton Rotary Paul Harris Fellow.

Keith Motley, Ph.D. – Doctor of Humane Letters

Motley is the eighth chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Boston, a research university with 11 colleges and graduate schools and 17,000 students.

Motley oversees UMass-Boston’s ambitious strategic planning initiative to enhance the university’s academic offerings and research enterprise, grow enrollment to meet the increasing demand for a well-educated workforce, and similarly build the university as a resource of knowledge and public service.

Motley is also guiding a 25-year master plan to significantly enhance the campus and its layout on the scenic Columbia Point Peninsula in a way that invites and welcomes the Greater Boston community to interact with its public university.

Previous to his appointment as chancellor in July of 2007, Motley served as vice president for business, marketing, and public affairs at the system-wide University of Massachusetts President’s Office.

Prior to joining the president’s office, he was the interim chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Boston, where he previously had served as vice chancellor for student affairs, following more than 30 years in higher education administration that included 10 years as dean of student services at Northeastern University.

Motley is a founder of the Roxbury Preparatory Charter School and chair emeritus of the school’s Board of Trustees. He is also the founder and education chair of Concerned Black Men of Massachusetts, Inc., and the Paul Robeson Institute for Positive Self-Development, an academic and social enrichment program for school-aged children of color.

He also serves on numerous boards of community organizations with local, regional, and national reach, including Carney Hospital (as chair of the board of trustees), Freedom House, the Boston Foundation, the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, the Boston Sports Museum, the United Way of Massachusetts Bay, the Commonwealth Corporation, and the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. Motley also chairs the Boston Committee for the “Do the Write Thing Challenge,” an initiative of the National Campaign to Stop Violence.

Motley holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Northeastern University and a doctor of philosophy from Boston College. He also holds an honorary degree awarded by Northeastern University. He is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh’s Upward Bound Program.