Sister Helen Prejean, whose best-selling book, “Dead Man Walking,” sparked national dialogue on the death penalty and helped to shape the Catholic Church’s newly vigorous opposition to state executions, will address the graduating class and receive an honorary degree when Salve Regina University celebrates its 68th commencement on Sunday, May 20.
Also receiving an honorary degree during the ceremony will be local philanthropist Hope H. “Happy” van Beuren, founder and chair emerita of the van Beuren Charitable Foundation.
Sister Helen spent her first years with the Congregation of St. Joseph teaching religion to junior high school students. Realizing that being on the side of poor people is an essential part of the Gospel, she moved into the St. Thomas Housing Project in New Orleans and began working at Hope House from 1981-1984.
During this time, she was asked to correspond with a death row inmate, Patrick Sonnier, at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as “Angola” and nicknamed the “Alcatraz of the South.” She agreed and became his spiritual adviser. After witnessing Sonnier’s execution, she wrote a book about the experience.
“Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States” was on the New York Times bestseller list for 31 weeks. It was adapted as a 1995 movie of the same name, starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. It has also been adapted as an opera, first produced in 2000 by the San Francisco Opera, and as a play for schools and colleges.
Sister Helen travels around the world giving talks about her ministry, dividing her time between educating citizens about the death penalty and counseling individual death row prisoners. She has accompanied six men to their deaths. In doing so, she began to suspect that some of those executed were not guilty. This realization inspired her second book, “The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions,” which was released by Random House in December 2004. She is presently at work on another book, “River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey.”
Sister Helen founded the advocacy group “Survive,” to help families of victims of murder and related crimes. She served as the National Chairperson of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty from 1993 to 1995, and helped establish The Moratorium Campaign that seeks an end to executions and conducts education on the death penalty. She has been a member of Amnesty International and an honorary member of Murder Victim Families for Reconciliation.
Hope H. van Beuren
The van Beuren Charitable Foundation was established in 1986 by John A. “Archie” and Hope H. “Happy” van Beuren with a mission to invest in the quality of life and quality of place of Aquidneck Island and its surrounding communities.
For more than three decades, the Foundation has contributed more than $67 million to the Newport region, partnering with the community to support projects and programs in four priority areas: Strong Starts, Healthy Lifestyles, Community Prosperity, and Excellence in the Commons. The Foundation has emerged as a strategic partner to like-minded charitable organizations and remains committed to strengthening the community in its priority areas of interest.