Sr. Helen Prejean papers
Scope and Contents
This collection contains material detailing Sr. Helen’s work with death row inmates and her campaign against the death penalty. There is correspondence with three of the prisoners for whom she has been spiritual advisor: Pat Sonnier, Robert Lee Willie, and Dobie Gillis Williams. There is also information about two of the other men she has accompanied to execution: Joseph O’Dell and James Allridge. Willie Celestine is not represented in this collection. The death row inmates with whom Sr. Helen is currently involved are also not represented here. There is documentation on the process of writing her two books, Dead Man Walking and The Death of Innocents (including drafts, critiques, and editorial comments), the impact of those books, and the process of adapting Dead Man Walking into a movie, opera, and play. Sr. Helen’s advocacy work is represented with material about her work with the Louisiana Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (LCADP) and the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP), the Moratorium Campaign, the Catholic Campaign, Hands Off Cain, the subject files she collected, her other writings, and correspondence with notable persons, including her letter to Pope John Paul II about changing the Catholic Catechism. The Ministry Against the Death Penalty (MADP) staff files are also represented. Originating through the ministries of Sr. Helen, the MADP was incorporated in 2001 in New Orleans by the Congregation of St. Joseph. Sr. Helen's activities are coordinated through the MADP Offices. The MADP staff files include many letters about the impact of Sr. Helen’s work, as well as letters from “Ardent Foes” who are critical of her ministry and work to abolish the death penalty. There are also listings of all the events at which Sr. Helen has been a speaker. These Event Files are maintained by Sr. Margaret Maggio at the MADP office. Following these files are Photographs, Awards, and Oversize series containing photographs, awards, memorabilia, videos, and costume pieces reflecting many of the activities and events represented in this collection. The last three series represent three additions to the collection between 2012 and 2015. These files were likely maintained by MADP staff and Special Project Manager Rachael Hudak. All three additions contain materials related to subjects throughout the collection, such as Pilgrimage for Life, Sr. Helen’s speaking engagements, and the Dead Man Walking Play Project.
- Majority of material found within 1985-2014
- Prejean, Helen (Person)
Conditions Governing Access
This collection is open for research use with the following two exceptions: The Dead Man Walking Play Project was adapted by Tim Robbins. As the Play Project is ongoing, this means that reproduction of this script (Subseries 3.5 Play Project 2004-2009, box 51, folders 2, 3, and 9) in any form (including digital camera use by patrons) is not permitted. Correspondence between Dobie Gillis Williams and his family and friends (box 8A, folders 1-9) is restricted by the donor. Access to this correspondence may be granted by the donor, Sr. Helen Prejean.
Biographical / Historical
Sr. Helen Prejean 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, Ontario, 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. Sr. 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. She started to visit Sonnier and maintained regular correspondence with him. When Sonnier was executed in 1984, Sr. Helen witnessed his execution as his spiritual advisor, and has been campaigning against the death penalty ever since. At the request of Millard Farmer, an attorney who had become involved with the final stages of Sonnier’s appeals, Sr. Helen started to visit Robert Lee Willie, another death row inmate at Angola, late in 1984. Willie was in the final stages of his appeals, and was executed at the end of December 1984. Once again, Sr. Helen attended his execution. She then became spiritual advisor to Willie Celestine, who was executed in 1987. Her experiences with both the condemned prisoners and the families of the murdered victims led Sr. Helen to advocate for both groups. She started the support group “Survive” in New Orleans for families of murder victims. She also became involved with Pilgrimage for Life (later the Louisiana Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty). By 1990, Sr. Helen was working on turning her experiences into a book chronicling her experiences with Pat Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie. Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States was published in 1993 and became a national, and then international, bestseller. In 1994, Sr. Helen was approached by Susan Sarandon with a view to turning her book into a movie. With Tim Robbins as writer and director, Dead Man Walking was shot in 1995 and released at the end of December of that year. In 1996, Susan Sarandon won the Academy Award for best actress for her portrayal of the Sr. Helen character in the movie. Dead Man Walking was also developed into an opera in 2000, of which new productions are still being staged. In 2003, Tim Robbins rewrote his screenplay into a play for use with the Dead Man Walking Play Project in schools and colleges, which is an ongoing project. Sr. Helen’s second book was published in 2004. The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions describes in detail the cases of Dobie Gillis Williams and Joseph O’Dell, both of whom Sr. Helen accompanied to execution, and both of whom she believed to be innocent. In the book she talks about their cases and the many flaws in the death penalty system. Sr. Helen continues to speak and campaign widely for the abolition of the death penalty, and to support death row inmates as a spiritual advisor.
69 Linear Feet (154 boxes and oversize)
Language of Materials
The Sr. Helen Prejean Papers are arranged into thirteen series: 1. Death Row Inmates; 2. Sr. Helen’s Files; 3. Dead Man Walking; 4. The Death of Innocents; 5. Events; 6. Ministry Against the Death Penalty staff files; 7. Photographs; 8. Awards and Memorabilia; 9. Oversize; 10. Media Files (video and audio); 11. October 2012 Addition; 12. December 2014 Addition; 13. February 2015 Addition. Many series are subsequently arranged into subseries.
Immediate Source of Acquisition
Accession 2010.30; 2011.24; 2012.70; 2014.149; 2015.021
H. Fedchak and K. Gosa 2012; D. Potts 2015; revised by P. Chavez 2018
- Capital punishment--Archival resources--United States Subject Source: Unspecified ingested source
- Capital punishment--Religious aspects--Archival resources Subject Source: Unspecified ingested source
- Church work with prisoners--Catholic Church--Archives Subject Source: Unspecified ingested source
- Discrimination in capital punishment--Archival resources--United States Subject Source: Unspecified ingested source
- Human rights workers--Louisiana--Archives Subject Source: Unspecified ingested source
- Nuns--Louisiana--Archives Subject Source: Unspecified ingested source
- Prejean, Helen
- Sonnier, Elmo Patrick, 1950-1984
- Willie, Robert Lee
- Women political activists--Louisiana--Archives Subject Source: Unspecified ingested source
- Sr. Helen Prejean papers
- H. Fedchak and K. Gosa 2012; D. Potts 2015; revised by P. Chavez 2018
- Language of description
- Script of description
- Language of description note
- Finding aid written in English