Get up, stand up

Death-row activist encourages students to speak out

Death penalty activist and best-selling author Sister Helen Prejean (right) talks to visiting students from the Academy of Our Lady of Peace last Wednesday after her speech at Cathedral Catholic’s Claver Center.

Photo by Riley Hetherington

Death penalty activist and best-selling author Sister Helen Prejean (right) talks to visiting students from the Academy of Our Lady of Peace last Wednesday after her speech at Cathedral Catholic’s Claver Center.

When Sister Helen Prejean visited the Cathedral Catholic High School last week to deliver a speech, she not only attempted to encourage pro-life values, but she also inspired high school students to speak up for their beliefs.

Sister Prejean used her platform to discuss controversial issues like gun control and abortion, specifically praising the shooting survivors at Parkland High School in Parkland, Florida for turning a tragedy into a movement.

“Those kids down at Parkland saw something wrong, and now they’re changing it,” Sister Prejean said. “That’s my advice to you. Make your words heard. Write a letter to your local congressman. Tell them what you think.”  

Before discussing students potential political prowess, Sister Prejean shared her story about how she made her words heard, first giving testimony to CCHS, St. Augustine, and Our Lady of Peace students and then later to the public at large.

When Sister Prejean was in her 40s, she was given a rare opportunity to become a spiritual advisor for Patrick Sonnier, a death row inmate who brought her on a deeply personal journey requiring her to prepare a murderer for death. Little did she know at the time that this task would spur a lifetime of accomplishments, including a best-selling novel, academy-award winning movie, and a public speaking career.

“I watched a man die,” Sister Prejean said during her speech. “The second I walked out of that room, I had to share my experiences. I knew that the people would care. Someone just needed to tell the story.”

Sister Prejean made it her mission to tell Mr. Sonnier’s story, and she now travels around the world talking about the worth of all life, even guilty life.

However, last week was not just about the death penalty.

To continue the week’s focus on the sanctity of human life, the Dons for Life club made pro-life values a campus-wide focus, with a different theme each day. Daily themes included physician-assisted suicide, abortion, and a celebration of life.

In the end, the club promoted positive discussions on campus in hopes of educating students on pro-life issues.

“[Cathedral Catholic High School] is unique because you do have a special spirit here, with the Dons for Life group hosting all the different activities before I came,” Sister Prejean. “That’s all very important.” 

The Dons for Life club mainly focused last year on abortion, which Sister Helen also touched upon in her speech.

“When we’re tackling the abortion issue, we have to take into consideration the women [who] have to choose, especially women under stress or lack support,” Sister Prejean said. “We want them to choose life, so we need to give them the support to make that choice. The way of Jesus is always one of persuasion and community.

“It can seem like a simple solution to just make it illegal, but then you have to understand you’re making abortion a crime, meaning you have to prosecute those women for committing that crime or send them to jail, and that’s going to be a long road to go down.”

Sister Prejean also spoke about her past apathy toward the death penalty, saying she never thought about it in high school because it directly did not affect her life.

“For many students this was the first time the death penalty has been brought to their attention, so I think Sister Helen made conversations a lot easier on campus,” Dons for Life club leader John Teixeira ‘19 said. “I think now at least students are aware of the subject, and are able to form their own opinion.”  

The CCHS community, which was fortunate enough to host Sister Prejean, showed its gratitude by creating a small Sister Helen Hospitality Team, which consisted of a few Dons for Life members committed to making her day on campus as comfortable as possible.

Sister Helen was touched by their efforts, exhorting about the potential of CCHS students.

“I’ve enjoyed just about everyone that I’ve met here,” Sister Prejean said. “The students are deep and reflective, and I just sense they’re gonna make a difference in the world.”