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DePaul University Special Collections and Archives

Sr. Helen Prejean's Chronology

Sister Helen Prejean – Chronology

1939     Born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

1957     Joins the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille (now known as the Congregation of St. Joseph).

1962     B.A. from St. Mary's Dominican College, New Orleans.

1973     M.A. from St. Paul's University, Ottawa, Canada, 1981. Sr. Helen dedicates her life to the poor and moves into the St. Thomas housing project in New Orleans.

1982     Starts corresponding with Elmo Patrick Sonnier who is on death row in Louisiana's Angola State Prison. Becomes his spiritual advisor and visits and writes frequently for the next two years.

1984     April 5 - Sonnier is electrocuted shortly after midnight with Sr. Helen witnessing his execution.

1984     In October, Sr. Helen is asked by Millard Farmer, an attorney working against the death penalty who had represented Sonnier in the last months of his life, to visit another death row inmate, Robert Lee Willie.

1984     November 19 – Sr. Helen speaks at Robert Lee Willie’s Pardon Board hearing.

1984     December 28 – Robert Lee Willie is electrocuted, with Sr. Helen witnessing as his spiritual advisor.

1985     Serves on the board of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty until 1995.

1988     Establishes “Survive”, the New Orleans victim assistance group.

1993     Sr. Helen’s book Dead Man Walking: an Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States is published by Random House. 

1995     Dead Man Walking is developed into a major motion picture starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn and directed by Tim Robbins.

1996     Due to increased public awareness of her work after the release of Dead Man Walking, Sr. Helen is asked to help Joseph O’Dell, a Virginia death row inmate.

1997     July 23 – Joseph O'Dell is executed by the state of Virginia. 

1997     The San Francisco Opera commissions composer Jake Heggie and playwright Terrence McNally to create a new opera based on Sister Helen Prejean’s book Dead Man Walking for the fall opera season of 2000.

1999     January 8 – Dobie Gillis Williams, who Sr. Helen visited on death row for 8 years, is executed by lethal injection in Louisiana.

2000      World premiere of the Dead Man Walking opera, San Francisco, 2000.

2003     The Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project is founded.  Tim Robbins adapts the book into a stage production.

2005      Sr. Helen's account of the cases of Williams and O'Dell, both of whom she believed to be innocent, is published by Random House entitled The Death of Innocents:  An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions.