Sister Helen Prejean, for those who don’t know, is the leading advocate against the death penalty and the author of the book-turned-movie Dead Man Walking. She has spent the last three decades acting as spiritual advisor to death row inmates, as well as traveling around the U.S. and the world speaking about her experiences. Sister Helen recently donated her vast collection of letters, newspaper clippings, and legal documents to DePaul University in Chicago, IL. The collection includes correspondence between Sister Helen and death row inmates Elmo “Pat” Sonnier, Robert Lee Willie, and Dobie Gillis Williams. There are also many letters of support for Sister Helen, and just as many in opposition. Other highlights include Tim Robbins’ original screenplay along with Sister Helen’s handwritten notes, and props from the movie including Sean Penn’s boots and belt. A guide to the entire collection can be found with the link below, simply scroll down to “Prejean Papers.” <http://library.depaul.edu/Find/Collections/browseall.aspx?g=15> This is a permanent collection, so if you ever get the opportunity to visit Chicago you should absolutely plan to spend a couple days in the DePaul library.
When you arrive, ask for Helen at the Special Collections’ desk. Coincidentally, Helen is also the name of the librarian who organized and archived the collection. She is intimately familiarly with its contents and will be delighted to share her favorite items with you. One of my personal favorites is a framed illustration of Sister Helen from the Chicago Committee to the Bill of Rights. This drawing in its frame is exactly the same size and shape as the window from Dobie Williams’ trial, which he supposedly climbed through. After reading about Dobie’s case in Sister Helen’s book, The Death of Innocents, I was both amazed and horrified when I actually held that small, narrow frame in my hands. Another poignant moment in my exploration of the “Prejean Papers” was my discovery of Robert Lee Willie’s personal dictionary and hat. I couldn’t believe that I was actually holding a piece of this man’s life in my hands.
Whether you have eagerly devoured the books Dead Man Walking and The Death of Innocents, had the incredible experience of meeting Sister Helen Prejean herself, or simply share her abhorrence of the death penalty, this collection will certainly move you.
- Sophie T., UO Inside-Out Alumna