March 16, 2018

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Sister Thea Bowman spoke to and for other African-Americans

John F. FinkPerhaps I should have included Sister Thea Bowman in my series of columns during February’s Black History Month instead of March’s Women’s History Month, but she died during March, in 1990. She was only 52.

I happened to be covering one of the U.S. bishops’ meetings in June of 1989. One of the few women ever to speak at a bishops’ meeting at that time, Sister Thea spoke to the bishops about her favorite topic, evangelization among the African American population. She already was dying of cancer and sat in a wheelchair, but she spoke strongly.

She said to the bishops, “What does it mean to be black and Catholic? It means that I come to my Church fully functioning. That doesn’t frighten you, does it? I come to my Church fully functioning. 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 tradition, my experience, my culture, my African-American song and dance and gesture and movement and teaching and preaching and healing and responsibility as gift to the Church.”

She finished with one of the hymns from her hymnal Lead Me, Guide Me: The African American Catholic Hymnal. The bishops gave her a sustained standing ovation when she finished.

Sister Thea was born Bertha Bowman in Yazoo City, Miss., to Methodist parents, in 1937. With their permission, she converted to Catholicism at age 9. However, without their permission, she joined the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration at La Crosse, Wis., when she was 15. There she attended the sisters’ school, Viterbo University. Then she was sent to study at the Catholic University of America, where she received her master’s and her doctorate.

She became a teacher, first at an elementary school in La Crosse, and then at a high school in Canton, Miss. Later, she taught at Viterbo, Catholic University, and Xavier University in New Orleans.

After 16 years of teaching, she returned to Mississippi in1978 to care for her aging parents. While she was there, Bishop Joseph B. Brunini of Jackson asked her to develop outreach to non-white communities and to develop intercultural awareness programs.

At the same time, she began to give inspirational talks to black congregations, achieving tremendous responses. She had a magnificent singing voice and always used music as part of her presentations. She soon achieved national recognition, including an appearance on CBS’s “60 Minutes” with Mike Wallace.

She told Wallace, “I think the difference between me and some people is that I’m content to do my little bit. Sometimes people think they have to do big things in order to make change. But if each one would light a candle, we’d have a tremendous light.”

In 1989, Boston College conferred an honorary doctorate on her. In 1990, less than a week before she died, the University of Notre Dame announced that it would award her the Laetare Medal. It was presented posthumously during the 1990 commencement exercises.

Her cause for canonization has been introduced and accepted by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. †

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