Life

America’s Most Famous Nun on Confronting Death

A black-and-white headshot of Prejean in her 40s and a color headshot of Prejean around age 79.
Sister Helen Prejean. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Sophie Elbaz/Sygma via Getty Images and Oscar Gonzalez/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

As part of Slate’s project on the 80 most influential Americans over 80, we spoke to some members of the list to reflect on aging, work, and life in their ninth decade and beyond. Sister Helen Prejean, 81, is a Catholic nun and activist for the abolition of the death penalty. She came to fame with her 1993 book, Dead Man Walking, about her experiences as a spiritual advisor to two men on death row. Susan Sarandon won an Oscar for playing Prejean in the 1995 movie adaptation. Slate spoke with Prejean by phone on Friday. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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Molly Olmstead: Has your experience of aging changed the way you approach your activism?

Sister Helen Prejean: Absolutely. Because I’m very, very conscious now that I don’t have an unlimited time. But these life-and-death issues—cruelty and torture and the death penalty— attenuate your consciousness to get out of the ego thing of self. Because it plunges you into, “I better use my time well.” I don’t want to so emphasize justice that I don’t talk about the friendships in my life, and loving the people around you. I believe in living fully, too. [But] it puts a certain urgency, or fire, into the work. It’s not a frenzy, but it is very strong. That this is what I was meant to do.

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Do you find yourself dwelling more often on the thought of your own death?

The idea of death is very anxiety-provoking. As you get fame, people say, “Oh, look at your great life that you’ve had.” And you know deep down you’re human just like everybody else. And that I’m scared there, because I don’t know what’s on the other side. And you can say I’m this famous person, and look how I’ve helped these executed people and all that. But then there’s the human Helen standing on the limb. And I’m the last one to want to go, because I’m scared.

Is there anything about your work advocating for and giving counsel to people who are facing their own mortality that helps you process yours?

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I accompany people in their dying. The man that I’m accompanying on death row right now in Louisiana is Manuel Ortiz. I’ve accompanied six people to execution, and he’s the seventh. So when I’m in his presence, he calls me to be courageous to do what I need to do. And he goes, “Sister Helen, I’m becoming an old man, look,” and he points to his head, he’s losing his hair. His life is ebbing away in that cell, but he has a deep spiritual resilience and courage in him. I have accompanied people to death who summoned tremendous courage to be killed. That calls me to courage.

Has your faith changed in any way over the years since you had that revelation? 

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I think I’ve lasted so long because I was such a slow learner. I mean, it took me until I was 40 to wake up [to the idea] that the gospel of Jesus—the radical gospel of Jesus—is really about justice for people and not just living my life of privilege and comfort, you know? I come from white privilege and come from an economic class that didn’t know poverty. And then became a nun to boot, which doubly cloistered and protected me. My version of Christianity I had lived was that you pray to God and ask God to take care of the problems of the world, and be charitable to people around you. But no idea of justice. Faith isn’t just about some dogma, or even predominantly about the afterlife. Faith means seeing that deep connection of all human beings.

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One thing that helped in Dead Man Walking is Tim Robbins was doing the film, and he kept saying, “The nun is in over her head.” And that, to me, is a dimension of faith. You get stuck in over your head, and you’re trying to find your way and making mistakes as you go.

Is there a particular mistake you’re thinking of? 

When I wrote Dead Man Walking, I’d never written a book before. I didn’t know what to do about the parents of the victims. They were so angry. And I thought, Well, boy, they surely don’t want to see me. Here I’m giving spiritual counsel and comfort to the ones who killed their children. And I stayed away from them. It was a huge mistake. And I downplayed it in the first draft of the book. So when the editor looked, he said, “You know, you let yourself off kind of easy here. You didn’t even write a note to these parents?” And he looked me right in the eyes, and he said, “Well, it was cowardice, wasn’t it?” He said, “When you make a mistake, be honest with the reader.” And that may have ended up being part of the power of Dead Man Walking.

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It’s been a dark time lately. What are you looking forward to, or excited about, outside your work?

I’m part Cajun, and I live in New Orleans. So cooking a good meal and having friends over and eating, playing cards and drinking beer. There’s a group on Friday nights with the COVID thing, we gather on the lawn and just have a cocktail hour together.

And I gotta tell you one gift of COVID, for me, is I had been on the road from ‘93 until March 12, 2020, to educate and wake up people about the death penalty. And COVID stopped me in my tracks. So I am home. I got a little bird feeder. I got some little pansies planted. I have a little enclosed wooden fence, a little patio, and I got a little grill. And I get to be home.

This is part of Slate’s 80 Over 80 series. Read the rest here, including our ranking of the 20 most powerful 80-plus-year-olds in America.

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