Sister Helen Prejean, author of “Dead Man Walking” and leading advocate for the abolition of the death penalty, will receive an honorary degree from Marquette in a ceremony to be held at 7 p.m. tonight at Varsity Theatre.
One of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille, Prejean’s efforts to abolish the death penalty began in 1981 when she started corresponding with convicted murderer and rapist Elmo Patrick Sonnier, who was sentenced to death at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. In the months leading up to Sonnier’s death, Prejean served as his spiritual adviser.
Since that experience, Prejean has ministered to many other inmates on death row and was the chairperson of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty from 1993 to 1995.
After the ceremony, Prejean will speak about her experience ministering to death row inmates as the opening session for this weekend’s Peace and Justice Studies Association national conference hosted by Marquette’s Center for Peacemaking.
The conference, also co-sponsored by the Wisconsin Institute for Peace and Justice Studies will follow the theme “Exploring the Power of Nonviolence.”
The theological studies degree honors Prejean for her work with both death row inmates and the families of murder victims, said the Rev. Simon Harak, director of the Center for Peacemaking.
Harak said Prejean hadn’t been to Marquette in 12 years and he wanted to open up another dialogue on the death penalty.
“I wanted to bring her so a new generation of students could hear her message,” Harak said.
He said “Dead Man Walking” and its subsequent movie and opera personalized the death penalty issue. In the book, Prejean provides an autobiographical account of her relationship with Sonnier and other death row inmates.
“There was always a death penalty movement, but she gave such power to it,” Harak said. “Her effect on the death penalty is immeasurable.”
Harak said Prejean exemplifies “the love of Christ” by advocating for the rights and healing of death row inmates.
“Jesus himself suffered the death penalty, so to stand on behalf of people who are standing in front of the death penalty is to stand on behalf of Christ,” Harak said.
Chris Jeske, a junior in the College of Business Administration and member of the Center for Peacemaking, said he hopes students who attend will be open to recognizing that people in prisons are still human beings.
“She has an incredible story and I think anybody, no matter what their beliefs are, can learn from her story and experiences,” Jeske said.
Michael Duffey, associate professor of theology and chair of the conference, said he expects up to 400 people from across the nation to attend the weekend’s events.
Students and professionals can choose from about 60 concurrent sessions that include speakers like Will Allen, founder and director of the national nonprofit organization Growing Power, distinguished Marquette Law School professor Janine Geske and Jonathan Schell, author of “The Fate of the Earth.”
Students can purchase one-day tickets for $15 on the second floor of the Alumni Memorial Union.
“It’s really wonderful that for the price of a pizza you can see these great minds,” Harak said. “It’s going to be rare, if ever, there will be so many great minds and powerful practitioners on Marquette’s campus all at once.”
Tickets for Prejean’s degree ceremony are free and can be picked up at the Brooks Lounge in the AMU.