Born: December 29, 1937
Death: March 30, 1990
Sainthood Cause: Opened by the Diocese of Jackson; declared Servant of God in May 2018.
The following will be synthesis of some the best information from the four cited sources below:
- The official Sr. Thea Bowman Cause website’s biography of her (STBC)
- Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration’s page on Bowman (FSPA)
- Bowman’s Wikipedia page (Wiki)
- Catholic News Herald’s 2019 article “Sister Thea Bowman encouraged others to stand up for their rights” (CNH)
Early Life and Conversion to Catholicism During Childhood
- Born in Yazoo City, Mississippi as Bertha Elizabeth Bowman to Dr. Theon Bowman and Mary Esther Bowman on December 29, 1937.
- She was raised in Canton, Mississippi.
- Her family was Protestant, but she went to a Catholic school, Holy Child Jesus School in Canton, which was served by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration and the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity.
- “Growing up, Thea listened and learned from the wisdom of the “old folks,” the elders of her community.” (STBC)
- “She learned from family members and those in her community coping mechanisms and survival skills. These skills proved essential as she navigated through the horrid experiences of blatant racism, segregation, inequality, and the struggle for Civil Rights in her native Mississippi.” (STBC)
- Seeing the sisters and the work they did made a huge impression on Bowman as a child.
- Her encounter with the sisters inspired her to want to become Catholic.
- At age 8 she asked her parents permission to become a Catholic, which they granted.
- “For Thea Bowman, her conversion to Catholicism was rooted in what she witnessed: she was attracted to the Catholic Church by the example of how Catholics seemed to love and care for one another, most especially the poor and needy. For Thea, she was impressed by how Catholics put their faith into action.” (STBC)
A Young Vocation: Becoming Sister Thea
- A religious vocation began to sprout in Bowman and emerged more visible during her teenage years.
- Her young life as a Catholic and her prolonged encounter with the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration cause her to seek a religious vocation with the congregation she has known most of her life.
- “At the age of fifteen she told her parents and friends she wanted to join the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration and left the familiar Mississippi terrain to venture to the unfamiliar town of LaCrosse, Wisconsin where she would be the only African-American member of her religious community.’ (STBC)
- “Sister Bowman’s parents [were] worried about her joining an all-white religious order in the North. “Her dad said, ‘They’re not going to like you up there.’ She said, ‘I’ll make them like me,’” (CNH)
- “At her religious profession, she was given the name, “Sister Mary Thea” in honor of the Blessed Mother and her father, Theon.” (STBC)
A Sister for a Sister: Life in the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration
- Bowman was the first and only African American in her order at the time.
- “Bowman attended Viterbo University, run by her congregation, and earned a B.A. in English in 1965. She went on to attend The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where she earned a M.A. in English in 1969 and a Ph.D. in English in 1972 . . .” (Wiki)
- She was trained as a teacher worked as an educator for years at multiple levels.
- “Sister Marla Lang professed vows with the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in the same class as Sister Bowman. She said entering religious life is jarring for anyone, and Sister Bowman had the additional pressure of being in an all-white congregation in an all-white city, not to mention the cultural – and weather-related – shock of moving to Wisconsin from the Deep South. But if Sister Bowman was troubled by her circumstances, Sister Lang said, she didn’t show it.” (CNH)
- “She had her spirituals, the music that was so beautiful. Most of us had been living with little or no contact with anyone of African descent, but her voice was so beautiful, it was just a very rich experience,” Sister Lang said.” (CNH)
- Bowman lived during the unsettling times of the 1960s; however for her they were “a time of transformation for Sister Thea Bowman: both a spiritual and cultural awakening.” (STBC)
Her People’s Keeper: Life of Providing a Voice for Black Catholics in the Church
- “The liturgical renewal of the Second Vatican Council encouraged Sister Thea to rediscover her African-American religious heritage and spirituality and to enter her beloved Church “fully functioning.” (STBC)
- “She was eager to learn from other cultures, but also wanted to share the abundance of her African-American culture and spirituality.” (STBC)
- “Sister Thea became a highly acclaimed evangelizer, teacher, writer, and singer sharing the joy of the Gospel and her rich cultural heritage throughout the nation.” (STBC)
- “Gifted with a brilliant mind, beautiful voice and a dynamic personality, Sister Thea shared the message of God’s love through a teaching career. After 16 years of teaching, at the elementary, secondary and university level, the bishop of Jackson, Mississippi, invited her to become the consultant for intercultural awareness.” This was in 1978 when she desired to return home to Canton to take care of her aging parents. (FSPA)
- The bishop appointed her to direct the Office of Intercultural Affairs for the Diocese of Jackson.
- ‘In this position Sister Thea continued to assail racial prejudice and promote cultural awareness and sensitivity. She was a founding faculty member of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans.” (STBC)
- She is credited with “providing an intellectual, spiritual, historical, and cultural foundation for developing and legitimizing a distinct worship form for Black Catholics.” (Wiki)
- “Bowman had explained: “When we understand our history and culture, then we can develop the ritual, the music and the devotional expression that satisfy us in the Church.” (Wiki)
- “Bowman became instrumental in the publication in 1987 of a new Catholic hymnal, Lead Me, Guide Me: The African American Catholic Hymnal, the first such work directed to the Black community.” (Wiki)
- “She explained what it meant to be African-American and Catholic. She enlightened the bishops on African-American history and spirituality.” (STBC)
- “Sister Thea urged the bishops to continue to evangelize the African-American community, to promote inclusivity and full participation of African-Americans within Church leadership, and to understand the necessity and value of Catholic schools in the African-American community.” (STBC)
- “She helped found the National Black Sisters Conference to provide support for African-American women in Catholic religious institutes.” (Wiki)
“Live until I die”: Active Final Years and Death
- Both here parents died in 1984.
- Also “[i]n 1984, Sr. Thea was diagnosed with breast cancer. She prayed “to live until I die” (FSPA) and “continued her rigorous schedule of speaking engagements.”(STBA)
- “Even when it became increasingly painful and difficult to travel as the cancer metastasized to her bones, she was undeterred from witnessing and sharing her boundless love for God and the joy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” (STBC)
- She was soon confined to a wheelchair because of her illness.
- In one of her last great inspiring moments Bowman gave a rousing address from her wheelchair on being Black in America and being a Black Catholic in America to the U.S. bishops at their annual meeting in 1989. It moved the bishops to tears and applause, and drove them to join her in singing “We Shall Overcome.”
- She died in Canton, MS on March 30, 1990 at age 52.
- “Sister Thea said that she wanted inscribed on her tombstone the simple, yet profound words: “She tried.” “I want people to remember that I tried to love the Lord and that I tried to love them…” (STBC)
- Bowman was buried next to her parents in Memphis, TN.
Developments in Her Cause for Sainthood
- “She was declared a “servant of God” in May 2018, when her home Diocese of Jackson, Miss., requested the bishops endorse opening her cause for sainthood.” (CNH)
Servant of God Thea Bowman, pray for us!
Pray for her canonization!
Sr. Thea Bowman’s 1989 address to the U.S. Bishops:
- (shorter excerpt of her talking about being Black and being a Black Catholic in America; 4:35 min long)
- (The full address; 39:09 min long)
I will post a reflection upon her life in the future.
Both photos used under Fair Use (header photo found here)