The author who inspired Oscar-winning film Dead Man Walking has paid an emotional tribute to Father Dermott Donnelly, the Catholic priest brother of ITV star Declan Donnelly, who died in July.
Father Dermott, who was hailed as a ‘standout star’ of youth ministry for helping bring the Catholic faith alive for young people in the North East, died suddenly on 8th July after a short illness.
American nun Sister Helen Prejean is best known for inspiring the film Dead Man Walking, based on her book of the same name about her encounter on Death Row with a convicted murderer. She called Father Dermott ‘a tremendous gift in my life.’ The 1995 film was highly-acclaimed and starred Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon, who won a Best Actress Oscar for her performance as Sister Helen in the film.
Father Dermott was greatly influenced by Sister Helen’s story, which he shared on countless occasions with young people, and invited her to Newcastle in 2007 to speak to over 7,000 young people.
“Father Dermott Donnelly was a tremendous gift in my life,” she told the Universe.
“He brought me into the company of thousands of young people with whom I could share my stories of accompanying human beings to their deaths at the hands of the state and finding Christ in the faces of those tortured men.”
Father Dermott was one of the founders of the pioneering Youth Ministry Team (YMT) from the diocese of Hexham and Newcastle, who said he ‘cared passionately that the Church in England and Wales listened to and nurtured the young.’ Sister Helen highlighted this ‘passion’ shown by Father Dermott.
“I loved the way Dermott, a true troubadour of the Gospel, combined prayerfulness and praise with passion for social justice and human rights,” she said.
During his teachings, Father Dermott often used the iconic line from Dead Man Walking spoken by Sister Helen to Patrick Saulnier, who is on his way to the electric chair: ‘I will be the face of love for you.’
He encouraged young people to ‘be the face of love’ for others. Sister Helen, who is a passionate opponent of the death penalty, commented on his friendship and work.
“It was a pure gift of grace to work alongside him and to share his wonderful friendship. I thank God for him,” she said.
Due to Father Dermott’s influence, YMT ‘offer a truly holistic experience’ which ‘enables young people from many different backgrounds and starting points to explore faith and life issues in a relevant and interactive way.’
Fr Dermott: PA Wire/PA Images Picture by: Owen Humphreys
Sr Helen: CNS photo/Paul Haring
Still from film ‘Dead Man Walking’: YouTube screengrab