Remarks by the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M., as Sister Helen Prejean pledges her historical records to DePaul
February 11, 2011
I am Father Dennis Holtschneider, president of DePaul University, and it is my distinct pleasure to welcome you to the Special Collections and Archives of DePaul University’s Richardson Library; and this wonderful day in DePaul’s 113-year history.
We gather this morning to announce a very special gift to DePaul from one of the leading figures in Catholic ministry and the modern social justice movement – Sister Helen Prejean.
We are delighted that Sister Helen has chosen DePaul from among a number of other prospective universities to house, preserve and share through the ages the writings and records of her life’s extraordinary work.
Archives are not elegant storage facilities, but rather the tool used by the scholarly community to broaden the availability of important materials to the larger world. Oftentimes, in the midst of broad and diverse collections, they seek out and bring together particular collections. That is certainly true here at DePaul, a university named for a Catholic saint, known as the world’s patron saint of the poor.
As a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Sister Helen Prejean has served the poor and disenfranchised of New Orleans and elsewhere for half a century.
Sister Helen’s compassionate ministry – especially to those on death row – has taken her on an extraordinary journey and exploration of one of the most difficult and contentious issues of our day – the death penalty. Her life’s work is so much not an exploration of prisoners’ hearts as it is an exploration of our own. Her life’s work asks us to consider if we are a nation - if we are a people - who take someone’s life away when they have transgressed our laws.
Thankfully, this self-described “Southern Storyteller” took copious notes along the way and documented in letters, journals and sometimes just notepads much of what happened on that journey. The Prejean Papers are a rich trove of materials that include personal correspondences to figures ranging from the prisoners to popes, but perhaps none to moving as those to governors she’s lobbied on behalf of the men and women she’s come to know personally. We look forward now, to making those materials available to the world.
DePaul University shares Sr. Helen’s commitment to end the death penalty. Here, that work is led by College of Law Professor Andrea Lyon in our Center for Justice in Capital Cases, working with many colleagues and students. And it is not lost on us that today’s announcement is taking place as a piece of legislation sits quietly on Governor Quinn’s desk waiting for a signature to approve the decision of Illinois’ legislature to abolish the death penalty in our own state. I call on the Governor this morning to permit that legislation to become the law of our land.
The idea of bringing The Prejean Papers to DePaul first took root two years ago, during an interview of Sister Helen by Professor and former dean Susanne Dumbleton, who was working on a book on extraordinary women in the modern social justice movement. Upon seeing the dozens of boxes of records and documents Sister Helen had stored at her offices in New Orleans, Susanne immediately determined that there was much there that would be of interest to a great many.
After Sister Helen had a chance to visit Chicago and assess the stellar skills of DePaul’s Special Collections staff – and the depth of our archives on Catholic social justice issues – I am told it was a fairly quick decision for her. We’re very glad she did.
Our hope today is that this extraordinary record of one very brave and faith-filled Catholic nun’s work, may inspire many more to work on behalf of those with no voice or power in this society. It is for that reason above all, that DePaul University is greatly honored to accept this new collection in trust.
And so, with gratitude and enormous respect, allow me to introduce to you, Sister Helen Prejean.