*** DEBUG END ***

River of Fire: My spiritual journey, by Sister Helen Prejean

29 November 2019

Lavinia Byrne finds out what led to a Sister’s death-row ministry

TO A generation brought up on The Nun’s Story or The Sound of Music, the film Dead Man Walking struck a note of brute realism, and offered a different stereotype. Sister Helen Prejean was portrayed as an earnest and compelling campaigner. She is a thoroughly grown-up woman whose life is dedicated to advocacy on behalf of, and the pastoral care of, people — mainly men — who live on death row in the United States.

A book of the same name had led to keen interest in her work and its potential for a film. And now she offers the prequel: an account of her early life in the “cocoon of privilege” of her ultra-Catholic home, the calling to join the Sisters of St Joseph, her formation and years as a young teacher. The style is witty and pacey, and the anecdotes from what she describes as a “boot camp for Brides of Christ” a revelation.

Somehow, within this constrained atmosphere, she became close friends with a contemporary, a Sister called Chris, who was a nurse. Prejean, through her letters to the hospital where Chris worked, developed the habit of analysing her experience and putting it out on paper.

She was sent for further training to Canada, and discovered the attraction of studying theology, of living in a regular home with her fellow students, and discovering the friendship of men — or, rather, a named man, the young priest William with whom she developed a strong emotional bond — and then back home to a new job educating adults and exposing them to that most exciting of documents: the Dutch Catechism.

Above all, the book describes how her vocation within a vocation developed. Put simply, a conversation developed between her desire to serve and to be faithful and the changes demanded of her order as it responded to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. In the most abnormal of contexts, Prejean managed to become normal; in an apolitical vacuum, her social conscience sought the light; in an emotional void, she found friendship and love. And, above all, a cause.

The pious Catholic child came to burn for justice; improbably, she found the source of true fire — a river of fire which has taken over her entire life.

Lavinia Byrne is a writer and broadcaster.

River of Fire: My spiritual journey
Sister Helen Prejean
Hodder and Stoughton £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events


Church Times/RSCM:

Festival of Faith and Music

26 - 28 April 2024

See the full programme on the festival website. 

Early bird tickets available


Intercultural Church for a Multicultural World

28 May 2024

A Church Times/Church House Publishing webinar

Tickets are FREE


Church Times/Modern Church:

A Political Faith?

Monday 3 June 2024

This panel will explore where Christians have come to in terms of political power and ask, where should we go next?

Online tickets available


Church Times/Modern Church:

Participating in Democracy

Monday 10 June 2024

This panel will explore the power of voting, and power beyond voting.

Online tickets available


Green Church Awards

Closing date: 30 June 2024

Read more details about the awards


The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)