Sister Helen Prejean: In Person and on Paper

Sister Helen Prejean’s recent visit to DePaul included many opportunities for conversations with students.  One evening in Special Collections brought life to other voices not present in the room those in letters, poetry, artwork and other documents preserved in Sister Helen Prejean’s papers in DePauls Special Collections and Archives.

Students in Barbara Schaffer’s Digital Cinema 235 class had already spent two class sessions in Special Collections and Archives learning more about Sister Helen and her anti-death penalty advocacy and finding inspiration for their course assignment to create a short theatrical adaptation inspired by Sister Helens materials.  Twenty-one students came prepared with a variety of questions about Sister Helen herself, her journey, her advocacy, her experiences as a writer, and as someone whose work has been adapted for film, stage and opera.

Archives, by definition, are evidence of lived experiences. Students in Barb Schaffer’s class were able to review the evidence and then have a conversation with the archival materials and their creator.  Sister Helen, in talking about her advocacy, said that authenticity and integrity demand we witness.  Archivists use those same terms in describing the powerful learning that can occur with primary source documents that events of the past present themselves without the mediation of an edited, transcribed text and encourage students to use their analytical skills to determine the authenticity, reliability, audience and intent for the original purpose of the materials.

Three students in History 299 courses have used Sister Helen’s materials for their research papers this year, and one high school student based her Chicago Metro History Fair submission on research conducted in Sister Helens materials.  Special Collections and Archives is honored to care for Sister Helen’s materials, and to collaborate on rich learning opportunities for students.

A small exhibit about Dead Man Walking: The Opera, with materials selected from Sister Helen Prejean’s collection is on exhibit in Special Collections and Archives through August 2014.  Special Collections and Archives is located on the third floor of the John T. Richardson Library, and is open Monday through Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

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