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March 29, 2014

Beliefs burn strong

Renowned nun talks new book, death penalty on visit to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods

ST. MARY-OF-THE-WOODS — As she looked intently into a reporter’s eyes on one cloudy day, Sister Helen Prejean — a spiritual adviser to death row prisoners and internationally known death penalty opponent — recited verbatim the words that seem to aptly describe the wind that fans her fiery spirit.

“They killed a man with fire one night,” Sister Helen began. “They strapped him in a wooden chair and pumped electricity through his body until he was dead,” she said, with her words surrounded by silence.

“His killing was a legal act because he had killed. No religious leaders protested the killing that night,” she continued passionately. “But I was there, and I saw it with my own eyes.”

“And what I saw set my soul on fire. A fire that burns in me still,” she said.

But Sister Helen did not just say those words as she sat eating lunch on Saturday inside Owens Hall at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. She also wrote them.

Those words were the prelude to her third, newest, and yet unpublished book, “River of Fire,” an account of the spiritual journey that “brought me to the killing chamber that night and the spiritual currents that pulled me there,” she said.

‘Jesus Pope’

Sister Helen knew those words by heart, just as she knew and still knows the stories of the death row inmates she has met.

Born in Baton Rouge, La., Sister Helen Prejean does not only counsel death row inmates but also works with murder victims’ families. She is a high-profile voice in the capital punishment dialogue and a strong opponent of the death penalty. She is also known for her book “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States,” which later inspired an Academy Award winning movie, a play and an opera. She is with the Congregation of St. Joseph.

This weekend, she was at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods as a presenter for a retreat focusing on earth and social justice, “Beauty and Justice: Nourishing Your Heart’s Commitment,” sponsored by the White Violet Center for Eco-Justice, a ministry of the Sisters of Providence.

But this is not her first time in Vigo County. She has been visiting The Woods for many years.

“I love coming here. I love what the sisters stand for,” citing their work for the poor and social justice. “I have a special place in my heart for these sisters.”

Just before coming to Terre Haute, she wrote an opinion piece for CNN — published on its website last week — calling for a stop to the execution of a Mississippi woman, Michelle Byrom, for allegedly hiring someone to kill her husband, Edward Byrom Sr. In the opinion piece, Sister Helen stated that there is new evidence it was the son, Edward Byrom Jr., who killed his father, not Michelle. The Mississippi Supreme Court this week denied the state attorney general’s motion to set Thursday as Byrom’s execution date.

“I hope I did something good to help save her life,” Sister Helen told the Tribune-Star.

In addition to speaking about Byrom’s developing situation, Sister Helen also spoke animatedly about her prison ministry and the criminal justice system in America, which she described as “broken” and money-driven.

She also spoke about the Roman Catholic Church and the new pope.

After describing Pope Francis’ beginnings, she went on to narrate his work. She praised his efforts to create dialogue with the people and the poor. She appreciates his work in building bridges among different people inside and outside the church. He seems different from his predecessors, she said.

“He’s in a prison, and he’s washing feet,” including those of women and Muslims, she said. “He’s interviewing an atheist ...”

“I’m going sweet Jesus! We may have us a Jesus pope,” she said loudly as she raised both hands in the air.

‘Look at my Face’

But her expression was solemn, intense when she recalled the final minutes in the life of Elmo Patrick Sonnier, the first death row inmate she counseled, and the first execution she witnessed. It was in 1984.

What do you say to a dead man walking?

“It’s not one thing you say,” Sister Helen said. “It’s what you said all along as you’ve been accompanying them.”

At the end, she said, Sonnier told her not to watch the execution because it might scar her.

“Pat, I don’t know what it’s going to do to me,” she recalled telling him. “But when they do this, you look at my face. Because I want one face among those witnesses that says to you [that] you have loved, you have dignity, and you look at my face.”

So she didn’t use any words to communicate with him during those final moments. She used her presence and her face.

“The witnessing of it changed my life,” Sister Helen said. “I never dreamed they were gonna execute him.”

She continued her prison ministry because “I couldn’t stay away” after witnessing the execution.

“They have nobody,” she said, as inmates go through the anguish, agony and torture “leading up to their deaths.”

‘Just human beings together’

Sister Helen, who has since accompanied six people to their execution, said she learned many things from these inmates.

From those who were guilty, she learned about dignity and found the goodness in them. From those who were believed innocent — at one point, she indicated that many death row inmates are innocent — she learned courage, she said.

“Everybody’s worth more than the worst thing they’ve ever done,” she said. “From the minute you wake up on death row, you get a thousand signals that you are nothing but disposable human waste.”

If the tables were turned, and she had to bear the remorse and sorrow “when you do something that you can’t get back and you have caused such sorrow, ... I think it would crush me.”

Finding them at their most human state, she realized “we are just human beings together.”

“It just gives me a humility being with them,” she said.

One “mistake” during those early days, she said, was not communicating with the victim’s families. Now, she works with the family members of the victims.

“I was so totally wrong” about thinking that she couldn’t be of help to the families.

“I was scared to death to go to them,” she said.

The father of one of the victims in the Sonnier case approached her and invited her to pray with him.

“He was the first victim’s family [member that] taught me what forgiveness is about,” Sister Helen said.

She learned that forgiveness not only relieves the burden of others that caused a person pain but also frees oneself of hate.

“He taught me ,” she said, “that he was not losing that love and integrity in his life over to hate, where he’d be lost, too.”

And she remembered Jesus’ teachings about loving one’s enemies.

“You’re not gonna let the love in you be overcome,” she said.

Tribune-Star Reporter Dianne Frances D. Powell can be reached at 812-231-4299 or

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