Doctorate Degree Honours Sr. Helen Prejean’s Work
At a ceremony on March 1, 2019, St. Jerome's University conferred an honorary doctorate of theology degree upon Sister Helen Prejean in recognition of her tireless work as an advocate for the dignity of those on death row and the abolishment of the death penalty. The degree, used to recognize individuals who have distinguished records of achievement in the academy, in society, or both, honoured Sister Prejean’s role as a driving force in in transforming thinking and practices regarding capital punishment.
Sister Helen’s story begins in 1982 when she moved into the St. Thomas Housing Project in New Orleans and began working at Hope House, a non-profit organization dedicated to serving those living in poverty, the under-educated, and individuals experiencing homelessness. She was asked to become a pen pal to Elmo Patrick Sonnier, a death-row inmate at Angola Prison. She agreed and became his spiritual advisor, meaning that she accompanied him to his execution. Since then, she has accompanied five more men. Sister Helen also founded ‘Survive,’ an advocacy group that provides counselling and support for grieving families.
Dead Man Walking spent 31 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list and was translated into ten languages. That book became the basis for a feature film starring Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen (a role for which Sarandon won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1995) and Sean Penn. The film ignited a national debate about capital punishment. Sister Helen was in Waterloo to speak to a large audience as part of St. Jerome’s University’s annual Lectures in Catholic Experience series.
“Sister Helen’s unique ability as a story teller has motivated large groups to mobilize for a culture of life, and her courage to speak truth to power has meant she has had the opportunity to influence policy makers and popes,” stated Dr. Scott Kline, Vice President Academic and Dean at St. Jerome’s University.
Kline added, “In 1991, just before Dead Man Walking was published, 76% of Americans supported the death penalty. By 2017, support had decreased to 55%. And just this past summer, Pope Francis announced that the Catholic teaching on the death penalty had been revised: it is now considered ‘inadmissible’ and ‘an attack on the dignity of the human person’. Without exaggeration, we can say that Sister Helen’s work played a significant role in these changes.”
At St. Jerome’s University, individuals receiving honorary degrees serve as examples to students and are reflective of the university’s 'commitment to learning and academic excellence; the gospel values of love, truth, and justice; and the formation of leaders for the service of the community and the Church.’ St. Jerome’s University acknowledged Sister Helen’s commitment to those principles by awarding her the University’s highest academic honour.