Written on: March 27, 2020
Recent conversations about our commitment, as Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart, to “offer faithful witness as women in the Church” led me to reflect on women religious who have gone before me and have served as examples for my own personal journey as a “Gospel Woman.” Immediately I realized that my uncontested choice was Sister Thea Bowman, FSPA. My personal experiences of teaching in a number of “Inner Cities” and the influence of the Black Catholic Church and its vibrant culture, spirituality and music made my selection obvious.
A brief look into Sister Thea’s life will prove that she is truly a “faithful witness” in the Church. Born on December 29, 1937 in Yazoo City, Mississippi, Bertha Elizabeth Bowman was the only child of Theon Bowman, a physician and Mary Esther, a teacher. She referred to herself as an “olde folks’ child” and her early life was influenced by the Methodist Church in Canton, Mississippi.
It was in these early years that she began to learn the struggles of her people and how the elders around her “lived, thrived and survived.” Through the inspiration of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration (FSPA) and the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity she converted to the Catholic Faith at the age of nine and went on to become the first African American to join her FSPA Congregation.
Life in the convent was not necessarily a safe haven for Bertha, who went on to take the name Mary Thea (of God) at the time of her religious profession.
The skills she learned at the feet of the elders helped her to withstand numerous experiences of racism and inequality. Thea was extremely well educated with a B.A. degree in English from Viterbo University and an M.A. and Ph.D., also in English, from The Catholic University of America. She went on to teach in elementary and high schools, Viterbo College, The Catholic University of America and Xavier University in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Growing up among the “olde folks,” Thea was deeply ingrained with the richness of her African American spirituality and culture. When she returned to Mississippi to work among her people she was able to reach out and teach others with the stories and songs she learned in her early years. Thea had a wonderful way of teaching the young and old, rich and poor, white and black, clergy and lay about the tremendous gifts that the African American Community brought to the Catholic Church.
All sorts of folks were attracted to her because she was able to share the incredible joy she experienced from the Gospel in a way that highlighted her rich cultural heritage. Along the journey of her life’s story, Sister Mary Thea Bowman, was chosen to direct the Office of Intercultural Affairs for the Diocese of Jackson, Mississippi. She became a founding faculty member of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University.
Sister Thea would travel near and far to urge Church Leaders to continue evangelization and the value of a Catholic Education in the African American Community.
With the death of her parents in 1984 and her own diagnosis of breast cancer, Thea proclaimed that she would “live until I die-to live fully.” She would become an integral participant in the 1987 publication of a new Catholic hymnal, “Lead Me, Guide Me: The African Catholic Hymnal.” Sr. Thea was active in the selection of the hymns and wrote an essay, “The Gift of African American Sacred Song” that was included in the hymnal. In it, she described Black sacred song as holistic, participatory, real, spirit filled and life-giving. She continued to honor her speaking engagements despite her growing pain as the cancer metastasized to her bones.
I will never forget the day when Sister Thea Bowman attended (at the invitation of the U.S. Bishops) the June 1989 Bishops’ Conference Meeting at Seton Hall University.
Dressed in the traditional African garb, Thea was carried onto the stage in her wheelchair. Bald as a result of her chemotherapy treatments, it was obvious that the disease was taking its toll and ravishing her earthly body. In spite of her pain she exuded pure joy and took command of the microphone to have a “heart to heart” conversation with her brother Bishops.
She spoke from the depths of her heart of what it meant to be African-American and Catholic. Using her gifts of story and song, Thea lovingly “schooled” them in the spirituality and history of the African-American Catholic Community. She urged them be open and inclusive of her brothers and sisters. In conclusion, she urged them to get closer to one another, link arms and join her in singing, “We Shall Overcome.”
The strength of her voice, the look of pure joy on her face, the words she spoke, all seemed to move the hearts of so many of these men. They joined arms, raised their voices, some of which seemed to crack with emotion, and sang along with her.
Many were brought to tears and it was obvious to this observer that Thea’s personal holiness which was shaped by the faith of her ancestors and the tremendous hope contained within the Spirituals she sang, had a tremendous effect on these Men of the Church. She had definitely made an impression on them and left her mark.
A few days before her death, the University of Notre Dame announced that Sister Thea Bowman would be awarded the 1990 Laetare Medal. She died of cancer on March 30, 1990 at the age of 52.
People from near and far flocked to the events that followed her passing. Churches were filled with people who wanted to share in the joy of celebrating a life well lived. They recognized, in Thea, a strong woman of faith, an “olde folks’ child,” who introduced black American ritual, song and culture into the Catholic liturgy.
Sister Thea Bowman was buried next to her parents, on April 4, 1990 in Memphis, Tennessee.
In May 2018, Sister Thea Bowman was declared a servant of God, a first step toward sainthood.
The U.S. Catholic Bishops unanimously agreed to open a cause for her Canonization in November, 2018.
For information about her cause for canonization and more, click here.
Sister Eileen Spanier, GNSH ministered as a teacher and administrator in inner city Catholic Schools in the Bronx and Queens, NY, East Oakland, CA, Philadelphia, PA and Brooklyn, NY. It was through these experiences that she came to appreciate a variety of cultures and ethnicities.
Her experience with “Lead Me, Guide Me: the African American Catholic Hymnal” introduced her to the work of Sister Thea, and her subsequent admiration for the future saint.