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DePaul University Special Collections and Archives

In Deeds and Words: An Introduction

Photograph of Sr. Helen Prejean outside Hope House in New Orleans

In her letter of January 20, 1988 to Vernon and Elizabeth Harvey, Sister Helen Prejean wrote “My Mama taught me that love is proved in deeds, not words.”  Through decades working with death row inmates, victims’ families and campaigning to raise awareness and abolish the death penalty in the United States, Sister Helen has proved that both her deeds and her words have been essential components of her ministry.

Sister Helen began her prison ministry in 1982.  While living at Hope House in the St. Thomas housing project in New Orleans, she became pen pals with Patrick Sonnier, the convicted killer of two teenagers, sentenced to die in the electric chair of Louisiana State Penitentiary (known as Angola).  She started to visit Sonnier as his spiritual advisor, and maintained regular correspondence with him.  When Sonnier was killed in the electric chair in 1984, Sister Helen witnessed his death, and has been campaigning against the death penalty ever since.

Throughout the intervening years, Sister Helen has been the spiritual advisor for a number of death row inmates; witnessed six men put to death by the state; written two bestselling books, Dead Man Walking and The Death of Innocents; seen Dead Man Walking turned into a movie, an opera and a play; given countless talks about her experiences and campaigned however and wherever she was needed.

Sister Helen’s activities are now coordinated through the Ministry Against the Death Penalty.  Originating through the ministries of Sister Helen, the MADP was incorporated in 2001 in New Orleans by the Congregation of St. Joseph.

This exhibit highlights the wide variety of activities that Sister Helen has undertaken and the impact she is having on changing people’s hearts and minds about the death penalty.

In Deeds and Words: An Introduction