Sister Thea Bowman


“Black nun being examined for sainthood
‘She touched everybody’s heart,’ Homewood pastor says in recalling his
encounters with Sister Thea Bowman
Friday, November 28, 2003
By Ervin Dyer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Sister Thea Bowman’s pleas for racial understanding could move men to tears.
At a U.S. Catholic bishops’ conference in 1990, she told the mostly white
Catholic hierarchy that black is beautiful.

“God didn’t make junk,” she said, challenging the bishops to do more to
celebrate the gifts and legacy of black American Catholics.

Though Sister Thea, as she was called, was weakened by bone cancer and used
a wheelchair, she drew from the Negro spiritual and was “in no ways tired.”

She spoke of an old-time religion that bound people in love and then went on
to lead the bishops in singing “We Shall Overcome.”

When she finished, the bishops wept, gave her a standing ovation and lined
the hallway to greet the frail black woman draped in African robes as she
exited the building.

“She touched everybody’s heart,” said the Rev. David Taylor of Homewood’s
St. Charles Lwanga parish, as he recalled the conference and his personal
meetings with Sister Thea.

“She could go into any place and spiritualize it.”

From a rural crossroads town in Mississippi, Sister Thea began a journey
that made her a nationally known speaker, singer, liturgist and advocate of
black spirituality.

Before she died of cancer at 52 in 1990, her work landed her a spot on CBS
Television’s “60 Minutes.” Harry Belafonte met her in Mississippi in 1989 in
hopes of doing a movie on her life. Novelist Margaret Walker Alexander
started but never finished a biography of Sister Thea.

The Catholic Church has begun the process of closely examining her life to
see if she is worthy of canonization, but to those who knew her, Sister Thea
is already a saint.

There are black women among the church’s 4,500 saints, most notably St.
Monica, the mother of the North African St. Augustine, who is credited with
shaping Catholic theology, but no American black women.

Besides Sister Thea, two other black American women are being considered for
sainthood: Mother Mary Lange, who started Baltimore’s Oblate Sisters of
Providence in 1829, and Mother Henriette DeLille, who founded an order
restricted to black women in New Orleans in 1842.

But Sister Thea, who has been called Mother Teresa with soul, is a
contemporary figure.

There are 62 million American Catholics — about 2 million of them black. It
would have powerful resonance to see someone like Sister Thea — who walked
among them — elevated to saint.

“She left us — African-Americans — more encouragement to be who we are and
to be more effective leaders in the church,” said Taylor.

Sister Thea is recalled each March at Duquesne University, which holds a
dinner in her honor to raise scholarship funds for black students. The
recognition moves beyond the campus Sunday as a Pittsburgh tri-parish
committee commemorates Sister Thea as part of its yearlong Celebration of
Black Saints.

“She did so much to affirm blacks in the church,” said Taylor. “Her
sainthood would be a victory for us all.”

Sister Thea, the granddaughter of slaves, was born “Bertha” in Yazoo City,
Miss. Her father was a physician and her mother a teacher. Public schools in
the Mississippi Delta were so bad that after five years, Sister Thea still
could not read.

Her distraught parents, who highly valued education, sent her to the Holy
Child Jesus, a school for black children run by the Franciscan order of the
Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.

The dedicated nuns never shied from “begging” for better books or gym
clothes; they had the strong students tutor the weaker ones; they involved
the children’s parents in fund-raising.

Sister Thea was baptized Episcopalian and raised as a Methodist, but,
because of the strong influence of the sisters, became a Catholic at 10. Her
life was shaped by their work.

“I had witnessed so many Catholic priests, brothers and sisters who made a
difference that was far-reaching. I wanted to be part of the effort to help
feed the hungry, find shelter for the homeless and teach the children,” she
wrote 13 years ago when preparing notes for an autobiography in a Catholic

At 15, she entered the Rose Convent in LaCrosse, Wis., as a first step
toward becoming a Franciscan nun, taking the name Thea. She was the first
and only black person at the convent.

Sister Thea went on to earn master’s and doctorate degrees in literature and
linguistics and became a national presence for promoting intercultural

She started in her own back yard, going home in 1978 to help care for her
elderly parents and teaching about the Native American and black American
heritage in Mississippi.

“The heck with the melting pot,” she once wrote. “If you want to melt and
fit into my mold, if you want to adopt my values and way of life, go right
ahead, but don’t expect me to melt to fit into yours.”

Sister Thea preached that for Africans, Asians and Hispanics to assimilate
or melt into the pot was to become “half gray.”

It was a dulling of the cultures that she thought robbed people of the
“richness, beauty, wholeness and harmony of what God created.”


A Time of Life of Sister Thea’s Life

1937 Berth Bowman is born to Mary Esther (Coleman), a teacher, and Theon
Edward Bowman, a doctor in Yazoo City, Mississippi.
1947 Bertha is baptized into the Catholic Church by Father Justin Furman,
ST, and makes her first communion.
1953 Bertha enters the Franciscan Sisters’ community in La Crosse, Wisconsin
1955 Having contacted tuberculosis, Bertha spends the year recovering at
River Pines Sanatorium in Stevens Point, Wisconsin.
1956 She commences her novitiate years, taking the name Sister Thea, which
means ‘of God”
1961 Sister Thea teaches English and music at Holy Child Jesus Catholic High
School in Canton, Mississippi.
1968 Sister Thea undertakes graduate studies in English at Catholic
University in America.
1972 During a summer at Oxford Sister Thea studied and traveled Europe. She
began teaching at Vitebro College in La Crosse, were she chairs the English
Department, and directs the Hallelujah Singers
1980 Sister Thea helps found the Institute of Black Catholic Studies at
Xavier University in New Orleans being a faculty member until 1
1983 Sister Thea received the Brother James Miller, FSC, Award.
1984 In a very difficult year, Sister Thea is diagnosed with Breast Cancer
and her parents die, but Sister Thea continues a very active schedule of
speaking engagements, teaching, and performing.
1985 Sister Thea travels to Forty-third International Eucharistic Congress
in Nairobi, Kenya. Because of Sister Thea good work, she received the
Harriet Tubman Award given by the National Black Sisters. She also received
Pope John Paul XXIII Award from Viterbo College.
1987 “60 Minutes” aired an interview between Mike Wallace and Sister Thea
1988 Sister Thea received more awards. Regis College, Clarke College, Xavier
University (New Orleans), Scared Heart University, College of Our Lady of
the Elms, Boston College, Georgetown University, Saint Michael’s College,
Marygrove College, Viterbo College and Spring Hill College all gave her an
Honorary Doctorate. Governor James Blanchard recognized Sister Thea with the
G. Mennen Williams Award. Canton had declared 23 December Sister Thea Bowman
1989 Sister Thea received the U.S. Catholic Award for her undeterred fight
for women movement and the Bishop Carroll T. Dozier Award from the Christian
Brothers College for her struggle to have peace and justice in the world.
1990 Sister Thea died on March 30; she posthumously received the Laetare
Medal from Notre Dame University.

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