Sister Thea Bowman, whose canonization cause is underway, was dynamic evangelist
Nov 13, 2020
Hailed for her tireless crusade to have the Catholic Church in the United States recognize and be enriched by African-American song, culture and expression, the late Sister Thea Bowman was “inspiring until the very end” of her life, said the bishop who opened the late sister’s cause for canonization.
Sister Thea – who died in 1990 from cancer at the age of 52 and whose cause for canonization was overwhelmingly supported by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2018 – was “an ambassador of Jesus Christ and an apostle of reconciliation,” Bishop Joseph Kopacz of Jackson, Mississippi, told his brother bishops in asking their assent for the cause for Sister Thea’s canonization to begin.
The late nun was a trailblazer. When she entered the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, she was the first and only African-American member of her order. In 1989, she became the first Black female to address a meeting of all the bishops of the United States.
She not only urged the bishops evangelize the African-American community and to welcome African Americans’ participation in the Church, she was equally devoted to encouraging African-American Catholics to share their culture and their gifts with the Church.
“As a Catholic Christian, I have a responsibility to preach and to teach, to worship and to praise,” she once said. “The Church is calling us to be involved… in preaching, teaching, witnessing, worshipping, serving, healing and reconciling.”
Sister Thea was an educator, a singer and an evangelist who “was a friend to many bishops in our country, and she used those friendships to prod and encourage Church leaders to welcome and support the religious legacy of Black people in our Church,” Washington Cardinal-designate Wilton Gregory told the Catholic Standard.
The U.S. bishops – in their 2018 document, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love - A Pastoral Letter Against Racism” – expressed their gratitude to Sister Thea and others “whose charism embodied evangelizing and caring for those who were marginalized and unwelcomed… (who) worked tirelessly against the prevailing current of racism to share the Catholic faith with persons of African descent.”
Sister Thea was born Bertha Bowman in Mississippi in 1937. Her father Theon was a doctor and her mother Mary Esther was a teacher. Her grandfather was a freed slave. Even though they were Methodists, Thea’s parents allowed her to convert to the Catholic faith when she was just nine years old. When she was 15, she entered the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.
When she took her vows as a nun, she changed her name to Mary Thea Bowman, and pursued studies at The Catholic University of America.
“I knew Sister from attending several conferences and conventions, and she would have folks over for fellowship when she lived in the apartments on Harewood Road (in Northeast Washington) when she was studying in Washington,” recalled Msgr. Raymond East, pastor of St. Teresa of Avila Parish in Washington, D.C. “It was a beautiful fellowship, and everything was really simple and in a spirit of poverty and joy.”
After completing her studies, Sister Thea served as a high school teacher and then a college professor.
“What always struck me about her was her love of Jesus – her love of the Lord – and her dedication to the mission of the Church to evangelize. She was on fire with it,” Msgr. East recalled. “It was a huge blessing to be with her. She was brilliant. She was wonderful.”
After more than 15 years as an educator, Sister Thea joined the Diocese of Jackson, Mississippi, serving as a consultant for intercultural awareness. It was during this time that she began her evangelization work, traveling the United States to urge priests, bishops and her fellow Catholics to accept her and other African Americans as “fully Black and fully Catholic.”
“We unite ourselves with Christ’s redemptive work when we reconcile, when we make peace, when we share the Good News that God is in our lives, when we reflect to our brothers and sisters God’s healing, God’s forgiveness, God’s unconditional love,” she once said.
In evangelizing African-American Catholics, Sister Thea would often urge them to “Go! There is a song that will never be sung unless you sing it. … Go tell the world, go preach the Gospel, go tell the Good News.”
Cardinal-designate Gregory, who as an auxiliary bishop of Chicago from 1983-1993 met Sister Thea on numerous occasions, recalled in a 2015 interview that Sister Thea’s “positive love for our Church linked to her African-American heritage was inspiring.”
“I was fortunate enough to have known Sister Thea personally, and she was quite simply a one-woman dynamic movement within our Church,” he said then. “She sang, preached and witnessed her proud African American Catholic heritage to anyone who was privileged enough to have been in her presence.”
In 1984, Sister Thea’s mother and father died and she herself was diagnosed with cancer.
“I know that suffering gives us new perspectives and helps us clarify our real value. I know that suffering has helped me to clarify my relationships,” she said of her cancer diagnosis. “Perhaps suffering stops us in our tracks and forces us to confront what is real within ourselves and in our environment.”
Sister Thea did not allow these hardships to interfere with her message of God’s love for all people. She famously promised to “live until I die” and, despite her constant pain, she traveled throughout the country preaching the Gospel.
“Even when she was sick, she did not stop. She kept strong in the ministry,” Msgr. East said. “She said ‘I am going to live until I die,’ and we literally saw her do that.”
In addition to her evangelization work, Sister Thea helped found the National Black Sisters Conference to provide support for African-American women in religious life. She also helped produce in 1987 “Lead Me, Guide Me: The African American Catholic Hymnal,” the first such hymnal for African American Catholics.
The hymnal includes an essay that she wrote, titled “The Gift of African American Sacred Song.” In it, she said, “Black sacred song is soulful song. Black sacred song has been at once a source and an expression of Black faith, spirituality and devotion. By song, our people have called the Spirit into our hearts, homes, churches and communities. Seeking to enrich our liturgies with the gift of sacred song, we pray: ‘Spirit, Sweet Holy Spirit, fall afresh on me.’”
Confined to a wheelchair and suffering greatly, in 1989 Sister Thea addressed a meeting of all the bishops of the United States. She told them to evangelize the African-American community and to welcome African-American participation in the Church.
Calling herself “a pilgrim in the journey looking for home,” she urged the bishops, “please help me to get home.”
“What does it mean to be Black and Catholic? It means that I come to my Church fully functioning,” she said. “I bring myself; my Black self, all that I am, all that I have, all that I hope to become. I bring my whole history, my traditions, my experience, my culture, my African-American song and dance and gesture and movement and teaching and preaching and healing and responsibility - as gifts to the Church. I bring a spirituality that … is contemplative and biblical and holistic, bringing to religion a totality of mind and imagination, of memory, of feeling and passion, and emotion and intensity.”
Dr. Ansel Augustine, executive director of Cultural Diversity and Outreach for the Archdiocese of Washington, said Sister Thea lived a life that was “countercultural, as our Catholic faith calls us to be in the world.”
“Her life of advocacy, holiness, and love for others in her various leadership roles, empowered others to live out their calling in the world,” Dr. Augustine said. “Most importantly, she did not allow society to define her. Her life defined society. That is her lasting impact – calling people to be their authentic, made in the image and likeness of God, selves.”
Sister Thea died on March 30, 1990 in Mississippi. As she was dying, she said that all she wanted written on her tombstone were the words, “She tried.” She explained that “I want people to remember that I tried to love the Lord and that I tried to love them.”
“Sister Thea Bowman is a bright light shining on the Church in the United States. Her stories of evangelization, inculturation, and determination in bringing the beauty of African-American gifts to the service and enrichment of the Catholic Church in our nation inspired all who knew her” Cardinal-designate Gregory told the Catholic Standard. “Her simplicity and directness reflected her deep spiritual love and devotion for our people and our Church. She exhibited the determination and religious drive of holy men and women throughout the Church’s heritage.”
When her cause for sainthood was opened, investigators said Sister Thea was a religious sister who was “close to God and who lovingly invited others to encounter the presence of God in their lives. She is acclaimed a holy woman.”