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
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.
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.)
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.
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."
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!")
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
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
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
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
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.'"
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.
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
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
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.