National Catholic Sisters Week is celebrated March 8-14th, within the larger month-long spotlight of Women’s History Month, and kicked off by International Women’s Day on March 8th. A 2016 study found that most Americans report positive perceptions of women religious, and a greater number said that their work is important (83 percent). Despite this admiration, many Americans also had outdated perceptions of Catholic sisters. Those misconceptions include thinking that the work of sisters has little or no impact on non-Catholics, they only support positions in line with the church, or that most wear habits (“Sister to All Campaign”).
However, anyone who spends a few minutes with Sr. Helen Prejean, who visits DePaul each April, will find she is down to earth, quick to share her favorite Cajun jokes, and believes stories and art have the power to change hearts.
Sr. Helen’s book Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account to the Death Penalty in the United States and the movie that followed, introduced her social justice activism to the world. Her recent memoir, A River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey, described as a prequel to her first book, tells the story of her community’s transformation following the Second Vatican Council. “[I]n four short years – 1964 to 1968 – my Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph (CSJ) religious community totally revamped our engagement with the world and our style of life…every important aspect of our lives changed, with every bit of change centered around the Gospel mandate of Jesus to serve the ‘dear neighbor.’” With these changes Sr. Helen left her career as a junior high school teacher and embraced new opportunities to serve the poor, which eventually led to her serving as the spiritual advisor to individuals facing the death penalty.
Sr. Helen often describes her early experiences with this unique ministry by referring to screenwriter and actor, Tim Robbins’s, comment, “the nun was in over her head.” In her talks and writings, she shares lessons learned from missteps and uses her talents of storytelling and teaching to focus on the injustice of “state-sanctioned killings.” The core concept of her message, inspired by her faith, is that each person is worthy of love and deserves to be treated with dignity.
Many women’s organizations and Catholic institutions have acknowledged Sr. Helen Prejean’s efforts with their highest awards and honors. The examples below can all be found in the Sr. Helen Prejean papers in Special Collections and Archives.
“Most recently you have been the single most important person in calling the attention of our nation to the difficulties we face because of our position on the use of the death penalty. Your work in this area has caused many people to think more seriously about this aspect of our Church’s and nation’s commitment to life issues…” (Laetare Medal, Notre Dame, Indiana, 1996)
“You have been selected because you embody values of peace, justice, freedom, and dignity for all people.” (YWCA Women Who Have Made a Difference, New Orleans, Louisiana, 1988)
“In recognition of your leadership and courage to make a difference in the lives of women and girls…Your dedication and passion for your work has made a positive impact on the way we, as women and girls, perceive our potential to make changes in our lives.” (The Women’s Foundation, San Francisco, California, 1996)
“We are delighted to present you as speaker at the central plenary sessions of the conference…This program goes straight to the heart of the conference theme and to the core of what women value most – gutsy, tenacious, committed and compassionate women of strength whose single acts of conscience and courage have transformed lives and communities worldwide.” (International Women’s Forum conference, New Orleans, Louisiana, 1998)
Catholic sisters “stand with the poor and immigrants, teach children, fight injustice, heal the sick, share spirituality, empower women, defend the planet, promote peace, create community, offer hope” year-round (Catholic Sisters Week). For one week in March we highlight and celebrate their contributions.
And for one week in April each year, Sr. Helen Prejean visits DePaul University, meets with students, speaks with classes, and is available for community-wide programs and conversations. This year, Sr. Helen is on campus Monday, April 20 to Friday, April 24th. We invite you to take this opportunity to get to know one Catholic sister a little better.