De La Salle North Catholic High School photo
Sr. Helen Prejean has lunch with De La Salle students.
De La Salle North Catholic High School photo
Sr. Helen Prejean has lunch with De La Salle students.
Seniors from De La Salle North Catholic High School had an opportunity to hear directly from St. Joseph Sister Helen Prejean, a prominent advocate for abolition of the death penalty in the United States.

Her wide-ranging talk, delivered in the school auditorium, described her journey of discovery and faith. It began with an invitation from a colleague to write to a death-row inmate and progressed until she has become a leader in the movement to eliminate the death-penalty in the U.S.

De La Salle is a college-prep high school for low-income students in North Portland. Matt Powell, the school's president, described Sister Helen as a “devotedly deep” thinker and woman of faith, and a passionate voice for equality and justice.

Sister Helen described her transformation through the correspondence and support as spiritual advisor for a man on death row at Louisiana State Penitentiary.

“We are all worth more than the worst thing we have ever done,” she said. As a nation and a people, she added, we should “never take it upon ourselves to decide who should be killed.”

Her talk outlined racial factors that come into play in the application of the death penalty. Studies continue to show that defendants who kill white victims are more likely to receive the death penalty. She shared statistics about the geographic factors in death sentences and executions — most come from relatively few counties and states.

Students were most moved when she spoke about how violent crime and violent punishment affect all of the people involved: victims, families, criminals and those who carry out executions. Some seniors had the rare opportunity to eat lunch with Sister Helen, as well, continuing the discussion in a question and answer format.

“She captured the moral dilemma a civilized society grapples with – how do we seek justice and yet uphold life?" said Tim Joy, principal of De La Salle North. "For our seniors who study ethics, Sister Helen’s stories about victims and murderers struck home.”

Sr. Helen visited Marist High School in Eugene last week as well. She spoke to the entire school on “Forgiveness and Reconciliation after Trauma: Perspectives from Different Faith Traditions.” Panelists were Ibrahim Hamide, local peace and human rights activist and member of the Muslim community in Eugene; Maurice Harris, local Jewish rabbi, teacher and writer; and Melanie Oommen, associate minister at the First Congregational United Church of Christ.

Sister Helen's book Dead Man Walking later became an Oscar-nominated film.