Sister Helen Prejean, a renowned activist for the abolition of the death penalty, is best known for her 1993 bestselling book, “Dead Man Walking,” which was adapted into the 1995 film of the same name starring Susan Sarandon (as Sister Helen) and Sean Penn. Her latest memoir,  “River of Fire: On Becoming an Activist", tells the story of her upbringing and what led her to become the fiery activist she is today. (CNS photo)
Sister Helen Prejean, a renowned activist for the abolition of the death penalty, is best known for her 1993 bestselling book, “Dead Man Walking,” which was adapted into the 1995 film of the same name starring Susan Sarandon (as Sister Helen) and Sean Penn. Her latest memoir, “River of Fire: On Becoming an Activist", tells the story of her upbringing and what led her to become the fiery activist she is today. (CNS photo)

Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, made a virtual visit to the Albany Diocese. 


On a Google Zoom call on Sept. 24 with Paul Grondahl, director for the New York State Writers Institute at the University of Albany, Sister Helen sat down to discuss her “spicy” new book, “River of Fire: On Becoming an Activist.”


“You know all nun’s books are spicy,” the sister said with a laugh.


Sister Helen, a renowned activist for the abolition of the death penalty, is best known for her 1993 bestselling book, “Dead Man Walking,” which was adapted into the 1995 film of the same name starring Susan Sarandon (as Sister Helen) and Sean Penn. Her latest memoir, River of Fire, tells the story of her upbringing and what led her to become the fiery activist she is today.


“To catch on fire with a passion is just a great grace,” explained Sister Helen. 


The sister’s visit was the last installment of the NYS Writers Institute’s third annual Albany Book Festival, which was changed to an online platform for COVID-19. The festival kicked off Thursday, Sept. 10, and featured interviews from both world-renowned and local authors, as well as writer and publishing workshops. 


Grondahl promised “they saved the best for last” with Sister Helen’s interview, and he wasn’t wrong. It was a memorable hour-long conversation filled with wit and captivating stories of Sister Helen’s life, all draped in her beautiful, southern drawl.


Raised in a well-off Baton Rouge family, Sister Helen recalled the influence of her family’s faith, particularly the power of the Rosary. “We would be getting noisy in the backseat of the car, and then in front there goes Mama, saying ‘In the name of the Father and the Son …’ ” Sister Helen laughed. “The Rosary was a part of life. There were times you would (be praying) and you descend into a special place.”


Being raised in southern culture and tradition led Sister Helen to encounter a divide in racial equality. When attending Mass with her family at her parish, she recalls the area that was reserved for black parishioners to sit, and how black kids couldn't receive the Holy Communion with white kids


“There's no reconciling” with the culture’s past, she said, “it's just simple growing.”


“That's what culture does, that's the way it was in the south,” Sister Helen added. “We never questioned the system. See if the system isn’t hurting you - and this is white privilege, pure and simple - you don’t have police beating you up, you've never tried to go for an educational program and be turned away at the door simply because of the color of your skin, you just don't have that experience, and so we’re blind to it.”


In her book, Sister Helen discusses joining the Sisters of St. Joseph at 18 (Grondahl said the experience sounded like “boot camp for brides of Christ” and she agreed), the impact of Vatican II on the sisterhood, and her path to becoming an advocate against the death penalty. 


Even today, Sister Helen’s fiery passion is as strong as ever. This September, two men were executed when the federal death penalty was reinstated by President Trump after a 17-year hiatus. Sister Helen said this move was “agony for the people sentenced to death in the middle of this political campaign” adding that “it just shows how politics drives moral issues.”


“Some of the crimes (of people on death row) are unspeakable, but we’re not talking about that. We’re talking about what we are doing,” said Sister Helen. “The American people aren’t bent on killing people but they need the entire story to see what’s going on.”


To watch Sister Helen Prejean's full interview, visit the New York State Writers Institute's YouTube channel. Her book, “River of Fire: On Becoming an Activist,” is available for purchase on Amazon.com or locally through Market Block Books at https://www.bhny.com