[CUA Office of Public Affairs]           

                                                                                                Nov. 4, 2003


CUA Honors Outstanding Alumni, Sister Helen Prejean

‘Dead Man Walking’ Author, Six Alumni Receive 2003 Awards


Catholic University honored Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J., author of the best-seller “Dead Man Walking,” and six alumni for accomplishments in their respective fields at An Evening of Celebration, held last Friday on campus.


“Tonight we showcase, we congratulate and we celebrate all that we are as The Catholic University of America,” said the Very Rev. David M. O’Connell, C.M., university president, in his remarks at the dinner for about 320 donors and alumni. “What defines us is the people who set us apart: our alumni and alumnae.”


Back Row: Robert O'Neil, Sharon Bell Mathis, Kevin Ryan, Francis Lorson. Front Row: Jane Haher,  the Very Rev. David M. O'Connell, C.M., and Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J.


Father O’Connell described Sister Prejean, who received the James Cardinal Gibbons Medal — the CUA Alumni Association’s highest honor — as inspirational. “Your life for us is an example of the courage of your conviction and the conviction of the Gospel,” he said.


The event, held at the Edward J. Pryzbyla University Center, also honored five Alumni Achievement Award recipients, this year’s Young Alumni Merit Award winner and CUA’s patrons, who were on hand to witness the unveiling of a prominent wall display of donors’ names in the new university center. The awards dinner was one of the highlights of the Oct. 31 to Nov. 2 Homecoming Weekend at Catholic University.


Among CUA’s Alumni Achievement Award recipients were Dr. Jane Haher, B.A. 1962, chief of plastic, reconstructive and hand surgery at Saint Vincent’s Hospital in New York City; Francis Lorson, A.B. 1966, J.D. 1971, former deputy chief clerk of the U.S. Supreme Court; and Sharon Bell Mathis, M.S.L.S. 1975, an award-winning author recognized for her contributions to cultural diversity in children’s literature.

Timothy Shriver and Father O’Connell.


The group also included Robert O’Neil, M.C.E. 1970, president emeritus of Parsons Engineering and a former chief engineer for the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority, and Timothy Shriver, M.A. 1989, chairman and CEO of Special Olympics, a year-round training and athletic competition program for children and adults with mental retardation.


This year’s Young Alumni Merit Award Winner was Kevin Ryan, B.A. 1989, who recently was named New Jersey’s first child advocate, heading a new independent public agency charged with monitoring all state offices that serve children at risk of abuse or neglect.


Father O’Connell compared the award winners to artists who have used their gifts to make music in life. “I’m so proud to be a part of the university that has played such an important role in your education and formation as good people. Your stories that we heard tonight ever so briefly are so beautiful and compelling and represent the very best of what we are here at The Catholic University of America,” he said.


Though she’s not a CUA alumna, Sister Prejean’s father was a 1925 graduate of CUA’s Columbus Law School. Father O’Connell pointed out her family history at the university when offering the Pulitzer Prize-nominated author special thanks.


CUA Alumni Association President Emilie Deady and Father O’Connell present Sister Prejean with the Gibbons Medal.


“You have honored us and thousands of our alumni, including your own father, by accepting the Gibbons medal,” he said.


Greeted by a standing ovation, Sister Prejean told the audience that they need look no further than the Gospel to understand why the death penalty is wrong. “We live in a culture that says we’ve got to choose sides,” she said. “The beauty of the Gospel of Jesus is that we never have to choose sides. And that’s what Catholic University stands for … and that’s what education is all about.”


Earlier in the day, Sister Prejean, addressed more than 120 CUA students, faculty and staff at Caldwell Hall Auditorium, exhorting them “to walk the path and, when you do, let it be on the side of the elderly or maybe children or maybe abused women. Listen to your heart and see what it’s teaching you.”


Sister Prejean signed books for students at a discussion with the campus community held before the awards dinner.

Occasionally with humor and always in her folksy manner, she described the journey that led her to become the spiritual adviser for Patrick Sonnier before he was executed for the Nov. 4, 1977, shooting deaths of two teenagers near a New Orleans sugarcane field.


Born and raised in Baton Rouge, La., Sister Prejean, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille, talked about her work in the St. Thomas Housing Project in New Orleans and her descent into the criminal justice system. Through a colleague, she started corresponding by letter with Sonnier, who asked her to visit him in prison.


Sister Prejean told the students that what she witnessed at Sonnier’s 1984 execution convinced her that “there is no dignity in taking a human being’s life for the death of another. Inmates on death row dream over and over the nightmare of their death. There is no way to kill a human being without torturing him.”


She decried a culture in the United States that, along with its approval of the death penalty, has responded to the events of September 11 with a call to arms. “We have a penchant for sending in the military. When we have social problems, we handle them with violence,” she said. “We’ve got to start reflecting on that. We need to do deep reflection.”


Shortly before she ended her remarks to the students, Sister Prejean, whose second book on the death penalty will be published next August, said people often ask how she signs her book. She said simply, “I write ‘choose life.’ ” 






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Revised: 11/4/2003

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The Catholic University of America,
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