Pulitzer Prize-Nominated Author and Activist to Address Founders’ Day

Sister Helen Prejean
Sister Helen Prejean

January 20, 2012

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. – Pulitzer Prize-nominated author and activist Sister Helen Prejean will address the Illinois Wesleyan University Founders’ Day Convocation at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 8, in Westbrook Auditorium of Presser Hall (1210 Park St., Bloomington). The event is free and open to the public. Founders’ Day honors the 30 founders who signed the charter for the University in 1850.

In celebration of the University’s 162nd anniversary, additional activities will include The Ames Library’s annual exhibit highlighting the documents from the University’s founding, including Illinois Wesleyan’s “birth certificate.” A screening of Dead Man Walking will be held on Tuesday, Feb. 7 at 7 p.m. in the Hansen Student Center (300 Beecher St., Bloomington). On Wednesday, Feb. 8, free cake will also be available at all food service sites on campus in celebration.

Prior to the Founders’ Day Convocation, First Wednesday Chapel hour will feature “Voices of Nonviolence from King to Prejean,” on Wednesday, Feb. 1 at 11 a.m. in Evelyn Chapel (1301 N. Park St., Bloomington). The event is free and open to the public. Excerpts from King and Prejean’s writings will be offered.  Film clips will be shown from Just Vision, an Israeli-Palestinian organization dedicated to nonviolence, and music spirituals will be performed by the new Evelyn Ensemble and Professor of Music Carren Moham, as well.

A catalyst for national dialogue on the death penalty, Sister Helen Prejean is an internationally known activist and educator on the subject, giving talks about her ministry around the world. Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize twice in 1998 and 1999, she has helped to shape the Catholic Church’s newly vigorous opposition to state executions.

In 1957, Sister Prejean joined the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaile, now known as the Congregation of St. Joseph. She received a bachelor’s degree in English and education from St. Mary’s Dominican in Louisiana in 1962 and a master’s degree in religious education from St. Paul’s University in Ottawa, Canada in 1973.   

Sister Prejean’s prison ministry began in 1981. After becoming a spiritual advisor for Patrick Sonnier, convicted for murder and sentenced to the electric chair, Sister Prejean’s eyes were opened to the Louisiana execution process. The experience inspired her best-selling book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States. Remaining number one on The New York Times Best Seller list for 31 weeks, the book received a nomination for a 1993 Pulitzer Prize and made the 1994 American Library Associates Notable Book List. The book’s success led to the production of the 1995 film Dead Man Walking starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.

Fifteen years after beginning her ministry, Sister Prejean has witnessed six executions in the state of Louisiana and continues to educate the public about the death penalty. The founder of “Survive,” a victim’s advocacy group in New Orleans, she continues to counsel inmates on death row, as well as families of murder victims.

In her time as a spiritual advisor, she is led to believe that some executed were not guilty. This realization serves as the basis for her second book, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions, which was released in December of 2004. Sister Prejean is currently working on a third book, River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey.

For further information on First Wednesday Chapel hour, contact the University Chaplain’s Office at (309) 556-3005. For additional information on Founders’ Day events, contact Sherry Wallace at (309) 556-3792.   

Contact: Kristin Fields, ’12, (309) 556-3181, univcomm@iwu.edu