Monday, 26 May 2008

Sister’s change began with pen pal

Sister’s change began with pen pal

Posted on Monday, May 26, 2008

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One of the biggest changes in Sister Helen Prejean's life came in the form of a letter from an unlikely pen pal.

Prejean's unorthodox pal was actually in the pen when he wrote the letter, and this particular prisoner was watching his state-ordained death get closer by the day. It was that friendship that woke her up, she told a packed parish hall at St. Paul's Episcopalian Church in Fayetteville on Sunday.

"I woke up in the'80 s. That's late to wake up," she said. "You know what, it doesn't matter. It's what you do when you wake up that matters."

Two books, an opera and a major motion picture later, the author of "Dead Man Walking," who is, in her own words," a bonafide Roman Catholic nun," is still asking people to choose life over death and compassion over vengeance. She's doing that by pushing for the end of the government-approved death penalty.

"It's a secret ritual. You'll never see it," she said of the penalty. "You'll never see the mental anguish of a person sitting in a cell 15 to 20 years waiting to be taken out and killed."

Prejean has seen it though. Her pen pal was a man named Patrick Sonnier, and he, with the help of his brother, Eddie, murdered two teenagers - David LeBlanc and Loretta Ann Bourque - in 1977 near St. Martin Parish, La. Patrick Sonnier was sentenced to death; his brother received several life-in-prison sentences.

After initial letters, Prejean became Sonnier'spiritual advisor and close friend. She walked with him to the execution chair, and she was the last thing he saw before dying.

Yet, Prejean told the group that the strongest part of the story was not her time with Sonnier, but it was her time with Lloyd LeBlanc, David's father, after Sonnier was killed.

"I'm not the hero; I'm the storyteller," she said.

She told the powerful story of LeBlanc's journey to forgiveness. He even went to the Sonnier' mother, who was shunned throughout her hometown and dealt with people throwing dead animals on her front lawn on a daily basis. LeBlanc offered her a basket of fruit along with the promise that she could call him if she needed anything.

"He's the first person I met that showed me forgiveness is not a weakness," Prejean said," and that love overcomes the hate."

She delivered her story to a teary-eyed group, and then she was off to see the hero of the story one last time. Lloyd LeBlanc passed away this week, and Prejean left on a plane to make it to his funeral right after the talk ended.

The lecture was the last of three talks during the weekend at the church. They were a part of the church's McMichael Lecture Series, said the Rev. Lowell Grisham. The church's Web site said the series is focused on drawing the surrounding community into the church while exploring a wide variety of spiritual issues.

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