Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ. River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey. New York: Random House, 2019.
Sr. Prejean and Dead Men Walking are now well known. Susan Sarandon won the Oscar for best actress in the film version of Sr. Prejean’s book. A play was written as well telling the story of the nun from the Congregation of St. Joseph in Baton Rouge, Louisiana who accepted to write to a man on death row. That letter was followed by Sr. Prejean’s attending the execution, the first of six death row episodes in all. The story is an inspiring narrative of Sr. Prejean’s vocation to follow St. Bonaventure’s invitation: “Ask not for understanding, ask for fire.” She accepted the invitation from Jesus Christ to give her love completely to the person Catholics and many Christians believe is the Son of God – the human face of the God who made the earth, the moon and the stars, and the cosmos that science is discovering with each passing day.
Family and Origins
Sr. Prejean gives some insights about herself and her family early in her book under the title of Origins:
“I am Helen Theresa PreJean, the daughter of Louis Prejean, Sr. and Gusta Mae Bourg. My older sister is Mary Ann and she was born on May 13, 1938, but I was born the very next April 21st, every year we’re the same age. For a little sister, this is a Very Big Deal…Louis Jr. – we call him Louie – was born five years after me, but when he was a little baby, he caught pneumonia and almost died, and one night when all the doctors said his life was in a balance, Mama prayed all night and marked little crosses all over his stomach and chest with water from the miraculous spring of Lourdes…Our family has a fierce devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary… We call our house “Goodwood” – that’s also the neighborhood because of the big trees… I have olive skin like Mama’s. It’s kind of tan even on my stomach, which never gets sun; it’s just natural and at summer’s end I’m always the darkest kid around.
Mama and Daddy grew up on sugarcane plantations on the west side of the Mississippi River near Baton Rouge, both of French Cajun stock. Mother’s name is Bourg (a city in France) and Daddy is a Prejean pres, French for prairie and Jean for “John” somebody or other: John of the prairie. Daddy’s Mama, Stella Gassie – we call her “Mamon”—spoke mostly French until she had a stroke. Mama’s family was poor… It seemed perfectly natural that our family had two black servants work for us; Ellen helping Mama in the house and Jesse under Daddy’s supervision doing yard work… Family pride in Daddy started early…After finishing Brusley High School, Daddy worked as an elevator boy and other jobs to pay his way through Baton Rouge Business College, and he got his first big career break when he landed a job as secretary to U.S. Senator Edward J. Gay of Louisiana. This took him to Washington, DC, and the dream of his life… Mama had zest, humor and mischief. Her Mama named her Gusta Mae which is close to “gusto” which she had in abundance.”
Sr. Prejean joined the CSJ which had taught her in the parish school. She was a very intelligent and brilliant student and dedicated religious. Her community gave her many opportunities to follow her talent as an English major and courses in theology. One of these courses was in Ontario, Canada about the theology of the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council (1962-1965). Another was a course at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana, preparing her assignment as Director of Religion of Adults while being Director of Novices and DRE of the parish where she taught adults, at Cabrini Parish in Baton Rouge, LA.
In Terre Haute, Indiana, Sr. Prejean found “Rapids in the River”. Her colleagues, especially Sr. Alice Marie, debated her interest in social justice. She had never really lived with poor people, or people of other ethnic or racial origins. In this context she accepted to join religious from the CSJ and other religious congregations. It was in this setting that Prejean accepted to write to her first death row prisoner, Pat Sonnier. The rest of the story is summarized in the Afterword of River on Fire. This third publication of Sr. Prejean has a Letter to Pope Francis as an appendix. She pleads for recognition of women in the Church in every way according to their sharing in the human race. In her Afterword she pleads for the human rights of men and women on death row, for LGBTQ, and other marginal persons, especially the poor, elderly and ill.
Sr. Helen Prejean, CSJ is a person of great integrity, humility and dedication. Her book is inspiring, surprising and takes its place among great and classical autobiographies. Like her two previous books, someday it may be dramatized in a film and a Broadway play.