Sister Helen Prejean talks with students at San Gabriel Mission High School.

A school-wide service learning project on the death penalty was the perfect backdrop to a recent appearance and talk by St. Joseph of Medaille Sister Helen Prejean at San Gabriel Mission High School.

The “Dead Man Walking” author presented an inspirational talk on the reality of capital punishment in today’s society, as well as the vocational power of God’s calling to each person. Her talk made a powerful impact on the student body.

“To hear her speak touched me so much,” said senior Diane Takehara. “This whole year we have been discussing the death penalty and the experience has been extraordinary.”

Last fall, the entire student body --- along with Religion and English teachers --- read “Dead Man Walking” by Sister Prejean, a book that chronicled the New Orleans’ nun’s early experiences as a spiritual advisor in an underserved prison which later was made into play, an opera and a major motion picture.

For weeks, students discussed the death penalty and wrote essays about the book, created artwork and talked about their own attitudes about state-sponsored executions. 

“Every discussion we had in our classes --- pretty much all of them --- were so different,” said senior Paige Curl. “It was amazing to see some of my peers who were for the death penalty. This whole year has given me a different attitude on life and a sense of responsibility.”

“It was a very eye-opening experience,” agreed Raquel Cagigas, senior religion teacher and assistant principal/dean of students at the all-girls’ high school. The sophomores, she said, “loved the book and the issues,” while the seniors were very divided about where they stood on the subject. “As we went through the weeks, people did change their minds. But some never did.”

Overall, the arrival of Sister Prejean at the all-girls campus created an air of excitement among the students. “We learned that it was unusual for Sister Prejean to come to a high school,” said Cagigas. “But last March when we originally contacted her, we explained how her presence would tie into our service learning project, and I think that tipped the odds in our favor.”

Before her formal speech to the entire school body, Sister Prejean met with the school faculty and staff, and spontaneously joined the Journalism Club’s lunchtime meeting. She gave the students writing tips for the school’s newspaper and an overall lesson in the power of the printed word. 

Students were very surprised, said Cagiags. “You can tell that Sister Prejean just loves students at this age,” she says. “Before her current ministry, she was a high school/junior high school teacher by trade. She knows where these girls are at.”

During her school-wide presentation, students listened in hushed silence as Sister Prejean spoke of her experiences with death-row inmates, their families and the victim’s families.

Takehara was especially moved by the description of sister’s daily life. 

“Hearing the stories of what she did and does every day, how she walks with these prisoners, I wanted to know how she found the strength to keep doing this over and over,” said the student. “So that was the question I wanted to ask her.”

Which she did, trembling, as she took the microphone and asked, “How do you find the strength to keep up this ministry?”

“She looked right at me,” said Takehara, “and said, ‘It is the need. You will find this out too one day. Your life, your vocation, you will know what you are to do because of the need of people around you.’ I’ll never forget that as long as I live.”

Since Sister Prejean’s appearance, the students have continued with the service learning project by participating in a pen-pal program with women on death row --- a way, Cagigas explained, to further connect the girls with the issues on a personal level. The students are on board with it as well.

 “I’m really excited to connect with a woman,” said Curl. “Even though I’m just a little girl in high school, I want to be able to make a difference. I want to find out how their imprisonment has affected their faith, their family, and their friends. I don’t need to know what exactly they did to get into jail. I just want them to know that someone out here cares for them.”

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