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Sister Helen Prejean:
The Real Woman Behind
Dead Man Walking

A remarkable chain
of events led her to
become a Death Row
counselor. Now
Sister Helen's story
is playing on movie
screens throughout
the world in one of
the most acclaimed
films of the year.

By John Bookser Feister


(Above) Sister Helen's cross was a gift from a condemned, now dead, man. He sold his blood plasma to buy it for her.

Road to the Oscars
Smothered With Love
Sister(s) Helen on the Set
Sarandon on Prejean
Writing the Script
The Death Penalty Considered
On-time Landings

A dying man is alone, except for the love of a Catholic sister. He is a castaway, considered untouchable and worthy of death by his society. The nun comforts him and says, "I can't bear the thought that you would die without seeing one loving face. I will be the face of Christ for you." She is Sister Helen Prejean, a Sister of St. Joseph of Medaille. He is one of four convicted of murder whom she has accompanied to the death chamber in Louisiana.

You could call her the Mother Teresa of Death Row. She would argue the point. "I kind of speed a lot and get tickets," Sister Helen admits, and she is an outspoken critic of politicians and the legal system. She likes to argue. She cracks jokes. She doesn't wear a habit. But she has a heart big enough for everyone: She counsels and prays the rosary with victims' families. She looks after the needs of convicts' families. And she never knew what she was getting into when she made a simple decision, in her 40's, to dedicate her life to the poor.

When Sister Helen wrote her life experiences into a book a few years ago, she could scarcely imagine that it would be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and become the basis of a major motion picture. But now Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States has risen to number one on The New York Times Best-Seller List and is being translated into other languages. Dead Man Walking, the film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, is a contender at the Academy Awards. As this issue went to press, it was nominated for Oscars in four categories: best leading actor (Penn), best leading actress (Sarandon), best directing (Tim Robbins) and best original song ("Dead Man Walking," written and performed by Bruce Springsteen). Songs from the soundtrack are reaching the record charts.

"It's a miracle of God!" Sister Helen exclaims as she walks into the editorial offices of St. Anthony Messenger. She has flown to Cincinnati for an advance showing of the film to benefit her congregation. The day before in Chicago she taped an appearance--with Susan Sarandon and producer Tim Robbins--on The Oprah Winfrey Show. That night her prerecorded interview from Louisiana's death chamber would appear on ABC's Prime Time Live. ABC's Good Morning America viewers would see her the next morning.

As she settles in for this interview, she jokingly exhales an expression that only a real Sister would use. When asked, "How are you?" she replies, "I'm riding the kairos." That Greek word from the New Testament (see Ephesians 1:10) means "the right time," the time when God's saving acts are breaking into history. She can scarcely believe what is happening, but Sister Helen is relishing the moment.

Road to the Oscars

Longtime readers of this magazine might remember Sister Helen's May 1991 submission, "Murderers and Victims: A Rosary Reflection." She was writing her book at the time and felt drawn to write an essay about her praying the rosary each month with Lloyd LeBlanc, father of a young murder victim. Sister Helen had been spiritual adviser to the man convicted of the murder. She witnessed his execution. Sister Helen and a victim's father praying together became the closing scene in Dead Man Walking. The real Sister Helen still drives across Louisiana's swampland on the first Friday of each month to pray with LeBlanc.

When she was working with screenwriter, director and producer Tim Robbins on the script for the movie, Sister Helen had her doubts about how well the praying scene would work in a secular movie. "How are you going to do that without it looking hokey?" she asked Robbins, whose recent credits include the highly acclaimed films Shawshank Redemption and The Player. "He says, 'You're the nun and you're telling me we can't end this thing with prayer?'" Robbins won, she adds, "and you see the characters moving to another level where the reconciliation and peace is going to lie. It is so powerful. It is so powerful!" The scene is one of her favorites.

But that's getting ahead of the story. The road to the Oscars began when actress Susan Sarandon read Sister Helen's book and saw herself playing the role (see sidebar below). In recent years Sarandon has received three Best Actress Academy Award nominations for Thelma and Louise, Lorenzo's Oil and The Client. She gave a copy of the book to Tim Robbins and persuaded him to create a film--if Sister Helen would allow it.

"We were up against tremendous obstacles," says Sister Helen. After her 1993 book proved a critical success her congregation signed a film option, but no film was forthcoming. That producer had given up hope after being rejected by major Hollywood distributors whose money would be essential.

Sister Helen and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille were leery of allowing just anyone to do this movie, too, considering Hollywood's track record with nuns. "We've had the flying nun, the singing nun--it's either the flaky stuff or nuns who are leaving," she complains. She and her congregation wanted a realistic portrayal of a contemporary Sister in ministry.

Robbins and Sarandon convinced her that the film would be true to the book--although it would be necessary to create some composite characters to simplify the story enough for a two-hour movie. Sister Helen met with Sarandon and liked her. "I had to be absolutely sure these people were trustworthy," she says. "Meeting Susan, I knew that she was. And as I began to learn about her life, what she stood up for, I knew that she stuck her neck out for things that she believed in.

"I sent Tim a book, Jesus Before Christianity by Albert Nolan, and we talked about it. I said, 'Good sign! He reads! And he reflects!' I didn't know whether or not he was a good filmmaker, but I liked his values."

As they discussed their vision for what the film could be, Sister Helen knew she had found kindred spirits. "He started talking like, 'How can we do a film about this thing that people are going to come to? How can we frame this thing in such a way that we can probe Christianity without being preachy?' I liked that," she says.

But the most telling moment came in a conversation with Robbins and his agent. The agent suggested that the film would make a great "made-for-TV movie," says Sister Helen. Robbins interrupted him, complaining that commercials would spoil the moment. Sister Helen remembers, "He said, 'But a feature film will bring them into a darkened place where they can have a sustained meditation'--I like this person! He's deep and he has spiritual values, he's smart and compassionate. He wants to do films about things that really matter. I said, 'Tim, you got it! Let's go!'"

In the filmmaking agreement, Sister Helen was given script approval. Her community received $150,000 for film rights. That was in late 1994. By the turn of the year, Robbins had found partners who would invest the $12 million necessary to make the film--a low budget by Hollywood standards. He began signing up actors and crew to work for reduced rates. (Months later, he sent a rough edit of the film and a copy of the book to his favorite well-known songwriters hoping a few of them would be inspired to write music for a soundtrack. Twelve original songs came back--one of which is an Oscar nominee.)

Writing the Script

The next breakthrough came when Robbins successfully recruited bad-guy Sean Penn to play Matthew Poncelet, a character based on two of the men Sister Helen had counseled on Death Row. To test the moral question of execution, Robbins wanted to portray the most unredeemable character possible.

Many people who might reject the death penalty support it for the worst criminals, says Sister Helen. Robbins wanted Sean Penn from the beginning, says Helen--"and Sean Penn is just masterful, perfect"--because Penn can portray an unsympathetic character.

Robbins didn't want a propaganda piece, she says, but a balanced look at a controversial issue. The Hollywood approach, for dramatic reasons, might create a character unjustly condemned, or who was an obvious victim of circumstances. In Dead Man Walking, Robbins wanted to focus, Sister Helen says, on the real story: "a nun who gets in over her head, who gets involved with the poor, and gets ratcheted into a relationship with a very, very difficult kind of person to love." In fact, she says, the deepest theme of the film is unconditional love and redemption. That theme is sounded early in the film. As the prison metal detector buzzes, the camera closes in on Sister Helen's crucifix.

Sister Helen worked closely with Robbins on the script to be sure it was right, she explains. It took five drafts, but there is nothing in the film she is uncomfortable with. In the film, and in real life, for example, Sister Helen was confronted at Louisiana State Penitentiary by an elderly priest-chaplain who challenged her for not wearing a habit. In the first script the Sister Helen character went out to her car and got a habit out of the trunk.

"I told Tim, 'No way!'" exclaims Sister Helen. "We don't wear habits, and I had to explain to him the reasons for that." (The Sisters of St. Joseph, founded in France in 1650, were never intended to wear habits, but to blend in among the people they serve.)

"I teased him. I said, 'Boy, you better get the nuns right in this! We haven't had a good film about nuns since The Bells of St. Mary's!'" A product of Catholic schools himself (as is Sarandon), Robbins jokingly cowered before Sister Helen's mock wrath, she recalls with a hearty laugh.

Sister Helen talked with Robbins shortly after he learned that the film received financing. "Tim gets on the phone and says, 'Helen, we've got the money and now we've really got a problem.' I said, 'What?' He said, 'Now we've got to do the picture. I'm scared!' I was glad that he was scared. Then we got started and in nine weeks he shot a half million feet--100 miles--of film." Five of those weeks were onsite in Louisiana, four weeks were on a constructed set in New York.

Her Sisters are "overjoyed" with the final product, Sister Helen reports--and with her celebrity status. But her ex-novicemistress is watching out for her: "She asked me, 'Now Helen, you're staying humble, right? Feet on the ground?' And I said, 'Yes, Sister, I am,' because there's so much pain in it--to let any of this go to your head just doesn't make any sense."

Smothered With Love

Straightforward dedication and prayer drive Sister Helen, say those who know her well. She got these inner qualities from her upbringing in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Her father was a lawyer who taught her persuasive speaking, she recalls. And she had a "good, loving Southern mama" (a nurse). The family (she has a brother and sister, too) prayed the rosary together every night.

The long road trips they took together were a training ground for her current life-style, she jokes: She learned how to sleep in a moving vehicle. But more important, the close quarters caused the family to find ways to be together: "We sang songs and learned how to tell stories," the consummate storyteller recalls.

At the all-girl St. Joseph Academy in Baton Rouge, she learned public speaking, leadership and "how to punctuate a sentence....I'm realizing now the gifts I'm using. I had an excellent education," she gratefully says. Her election as student body president was an indicator of things to come.

This big-hearted woman has a simple explanation for how she became compassionate: "I was hosed down with love by my parents. I was poured over with love and affirmation. If I don't give that back, then I'm really seriously defective. I see it as a matter of justice, not of charity. I've got to do this or--I'll explode or something."

Her desire to love widely led her to become "a child bride of Christ at age 18," she humorously observes. "When I hit religious life," in 1957, "it was like you bit the turf. You were silent--and that was good for me, too. It interiorized me." Knowing that her tendency is to reach out constantly to others, she strives for balance: "If you don't have communication with God in your life, there's not that dynamic relationship between drawing in and reaching out. I realize now that I really have that combination within me. When I finish this work and I get on a plane, that plane is like my little cloister. I'm back to silence, back to my center, and I'm comfortable being quiet."

When she's at the right place at the right time, she's aware of God's presence, she says. "That was very intense in the deathhouse," she recalls. In her book she described it as a "circle of light" that encompassed her and the man about to be executed. "It was that deep center: 'You're here and I'm here and this is really hard, but it's going to be O.K.'"

But that's getting ahead of the story again. There was little indication from her early career that she would become such an outspoken justice advocate. During the first decades of Sisterhood, she had been teacher, novicemistress and parish religious educator. Then, in 1981, her congregation took a long look at its mission.

Jean Pierre Medaille had founded a community of Sisters to minister to urgent social needs. Where were the poor today? As she considered the challenge of the gospel, Sister Helen's comfortable, private spirituality was shaken to the core. Within a year she had moved in with Sisters who were serving in the St. Thomas Housing Project in New Orleans.

It was there that she naively agreed to become pen pal to a man on Death Row. When he asked her to come visit, she went and visited. Her eyes were opened to the process by which the state executes the condemned--which she abhors as patently cruel and unfair. She had to tell her story to anyone who would hear. "Witnessing his death [April 5, 1984] was a second Baptism for me," she wrote last year. "I couldn't watch someone being killed and walk away. Like a sacrament, the execution left an indelible mark on my soul."

Along the way, though, as the book and film portray so well, she encountered the devastated families of murder victims. They called her to task for caring more about the murderers than about the victims' families. She used her organizing skills to found Survive, a victims' family support group in New Orleans. "To me the image for the Church is to be on both arms of the cross," she told St. Anthony Messenger in 1991, "with the ones being executed and with the victims' families."

Sister Helen's balanced approach is captured by the film. In naming Dead Man Walking one of the top 10 films of the year, reviewers Siskel and Ebert said it is "more than a film that simply questions the need for the death penalty. It also generates empathy for the 'life penalty' that victims' families suffer too."

The Death Penalty Considered

The film indeed walks a fine line on a delicate issue. It is Sister Helen's contention that state executions are carried out in the middle of the night in secret for a reason: If people knew the truth about executions, they would oppose them. She openly opposes the death penalty in her book. "It's government imitating the very violence that it says we can't have in our society," she says. "Twelve people in the middle of the night, hired by the state, kill for the state." Unlike the book, the film draws no conclusions, yet reveals the secret goings-on for public consideration.

(The title of film and book comes from the words that guards at San Quentin Prison are said to have yelled when a death-row inmate was let out of his cell: "Dead man walking!")

Although Sister Helen had witnessed electrocutions in Louisiana, she and Robbins agreed that lethal injection would be the killing device in the film. In spite of the recently publicized firing squad in Utah and hanging elsewhere, most states are turning to lethal injection as a more humane way to execute. Robbins wanted his viewers to consider the morality of the most humane death the system offers. "We don't want to give them a way out," says Sister Helen.

The killing devices--including the crucifix-like table from which an elevated Sean Penn says his final words--are exact replicas of execution gear from Louisiana and Missouri.

There are currently over 3,000 people awaiting execution in the United States. Although the United States is the only Western democracy that executes people, well over 70 percent of Americans favor execution. Catholics, in spite of Church teaching that the death penalty is almost never morally acceptable in modern society, support it more than others.

But Sister Helen is confident that abolition will come: "You've got to realize there was a time in this country when over 70 percent of people supported slavery. Who would have ever thought that we would change it?"

Having served as chairwoman of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, she can recite every argument and statistic against state execution: It's immoral; it costs more than life imprisonment; it doesn't really work as a deterrent; it's reserved for the poor; it's racially selective; it's a political decoy; we're out of step with other nations. "Basically it's an act of despair," she says. "It's society saying we don't know what to do with some people--and when you don't know what to do with some people, it's O.K. to kill them." She notes that public support drops dramatically when there is an alternative like life in prison without parole.

But this feisty nun also realizes that people are afraid: "People have this instinctive feeling that if we don't execute them they are going to get out in a few years and kill again." Yet, she observes, there has been dramatic legal reform during the past 10 years which has tightened up sentencing for first-degree murder. "No one is getting out after a few short years," she says. "Either it's life without parole or it's mandatory long-term--30 or 40 years before they can even be considered."

Her special mission now is to get a copy of the film to Pope John Paul II and convince him to speak out for a United Nations resolution for worldwide abolition of state execution. That resolution failed by only eight votes last year. "Mother Teresa visited Death Row, but he never has," observes Sister Helen. "He's so strong in his pro-life encyclical. I just have a feeling that it's going to happen."

Sister(s) Helen on the Set

People often ask Sister Helen what it is like to be played by Susan Sarandon. As script consultant, Sister Helen had the opportunity to see the results of daily filming as the movie was being shot. "Susan was a window," says Sister Helen. "She wasn't a mirror. The window just brought me right back into that scene with those people. It was a constant reliving of what had happened," she adds. Her reverie was continually interrupted with the work of moviemaking: adjusting lights, setting things up, shooting scenes time and time again.

When she was on the set, she and Sarandon took turns using the folding chair that said "Sister Helen" on the back. Sister Helen observed that Sarandon never watched the "dailies"--the showing of the day's filming at the end of each day on the set.

She realized later that Sarandon was taking a professional gamble at her age (49) playing a role that called for "a bad haircut" (Sarandon's words) and no makeup. "I heard that Susan cried when she saw herself. I realized then that this was costly for her." ("Nuns, by the way, don't spend a lot of money on their hair," Sister Helen quips.)

Sister Helen enjoyed collaborating with Tim Robbins. "Sometimes we'd get stuck in a scene. We'd work it out and just kind of shape it together. We did it all together. Some scenes in it I wrote." She pushed constantly for humor: "I said to him, 'I know this is heavy, but what is life and faith without humor?'" The humorous speeding ticket episode in the film actually happened to Sister Helen during the shooting. It was immediately written into the script and shot only a few days later.

For film trivia buffs, the real Sister Helen makes a cameo appearance in the film leading a prayer vigil outside the penitentiary on the night of the execution. She's the woman holding the candle.

Her most treasured moment during the filming was also the most painful for her: watching the dailies of the "heart of the film." It is the scene where Penn is blaming everyone and Sarandon challenges him to face the truth. She sings to him through the cell bars the well-known hymn "Be Not Afraid" (in real life, Sister Helen had played a tape during a prayer service). "I watched that and I cried. And cried and cried," says Sister Helen. "I watched seven takes of that. Susan and Sean did this intensely emotional scene. I guess in a way it was also this great release for me to see it, to be back from it. Because it was the moment of redemption and transformation. Afterwards I just went and I hugged Tim. And he said, up to the screen, 'Thank you' (to Susan and Sean) 'for giving us the heart of the film.'"

On-time Landings

In the wake of the film's December 28 release Sister Helen's days have been filled with a barrage of media and speaking requests. Her housemate, Sister Margaret, has become her manager, at least for the time being. But Sister Helen doesn't seem to mind. "When you're in over your head, it kind of leeches out of you abilities that you just didn't know you had. I've got to write. I've got to speak. Because nobody knows it the way I know it," she says.

God's providence works, she believes, through the people sent into your life: "God sends you the people that you need." She considers Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins godsends in her life.

Film credits aside, she still considers herself a teacher. After all, teaching is about "sharing as you go, communicating, drawing people into what you've been through, learning as you go," she says.

And go she does. A final story illustrates why McCall's named her one of America's 50 most-confident women: After taping the Oprah Winfrey Show she encountered airport delays. She would be late for a benefit appearance in Missouri. "I believe you have to take action to help things happen or you just accept the status quo," she says, without a trace of Sisterly humility.

She called the flight attendant over. "I'm going to make an unusual request. Can you talk to the captain? If he could gun it a little bit more--if I could get five minutes, I can make it, because a car will be waiting for me...." When the plane landed 10 minutes earlier than promised, she knew she would be on time for her appearance, but she wasn't sure if her message had ever gotten to the pilot. Waiting for the passenger door to open, she got her answer. "The pilot opened the cockpit door and said, 'Did we make it, Sister?' I said, 'We made it!'" With a thumbs-up, she raced off to her next challenge.

Sidebar: Sarandon on Prejean

Actress Susan Sarandon found someone refreshingly different when she met Sister Helen Prejean. "She was the antithesis of most of the nuns I knew when I was growing up," 49-year-old Sarandon told St. Anthony Messenger during a recent interview. The actress, raised in New Jersey and educated in Catholic schools all the way through college at Catholic University of America, was impressed by Sister Helen's approach to life. She wanted to play the role of Sister Helen because "Helen was so full of life, such a great storyteller, so life-embracing. It was clear to me that her faith was a practical one." Sarandon saw in Sister Helen a woman functioning "in the real world with real problems....We were on some kind of common ground from the beginning."

Sister Helen was invaluable during filming of Dead Man Walking, says Sarandon, "in all the specifics...little details here and there of what happened with these guys or with the families." An actor's job is to be as specific as possible, observes Sarandon. "The plus side of playing someone who is alive and accessible is that you have a wealth of specifics in front of you."

But Sister Helen and Susan Sarandon moved beyond professional interest in making the film. "She brought her light and her love into our lives," says Sarandon. Sister Helen played a supportive role with Sarandon's family as they set up a home away from home during filming (Sarandon and actor-producer Tim Robbins are raising three children). Once the Sisters brought over a "great chicken dish" for dinner. "She's great with the kids," says Sarandon. She remembers Sister Helen captivating her young son with fun activities for hours once. When they returned her son was laughing, hysterically, she says. The Sister plays "a really good handball," too, comments Sarandon. Now Sister Helen stays at Sarandon's and Robbins's house when she goes to New York.

Sarandon is perhaps most impressed by Sister Helen'sgenuine humility. "She is a human being who worked hard to have faith and who made a lot of mistakes," says the actress. Sister Helen's example invites a moviegoing audience to understand that they, too, can deal with moral questions like poverty and capital punishment, comments Sarandon. Sister Helen's life, she says, is a sign that, "You, too, have the responsibility and the opportunity of finding your life, finding your faith and applying it to the world around you."

John Bookser Feister is an assistant editor of this publication and managing editor of Catholic Update. He has an M.A. in humanities from Xavier University, Cincinnati.

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