Sometimes people think they have to do big things in order
to make change, but if each one of us
would light a candle, we'd have a tremendous light.
--Sister Thea Bowman, FSPA, (1937-1990)
Thea Bowman, FSPA
As shared by Charlene Smith, FSPA
People who know me often hear me say that I consider myself a fortunate person! A reason for that assertion is that for thirty-five years my life was in orbit with Sister Thea Bowman. We met in the mid-1950s when we entered the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. Though cultures apart -- she was the grand daughter of a slave from the segregated state of Mississippi, I was the daughter of Caucasian parents from the homogenous state of Iowa -- our goals were similar.
Our choice to major in English and minor in speech and drama at Viterbo University put us, happily, in many undergraduate classes together. We wanted to be Franciscans; we wanted to be teachers; we wanted to teach English. And we did! Being friends was an added dollop!
From the beginning of our times together, it was clear Thea was filled with life force! Her tremendous gifts propelled her before eager students and pressing audiences across the country and in Africa. She became a scholar of distinction, a master teacher, a wise mentor, an authority on William Faulkner, a soaring singer of spirituals and gospel music, the subject of a 60 Minutes profile, an acclaimed international speaker, an intercultural awareness consultant, a beloved friend to many, a philosopher, a preacher, a mystic, a prophet.
Thea died much too soon but her spirit stays fresh, alive in the air for many. Her happy laughter often sounds just over my shoulder. It is a privilege to help tell the good news about Thea!
Thea, as she was called by many, was known for tirelessly spreading the gospel through song, dance, and story, and for promoting cross-cultural awareness throughout the country. She so captured the hearts and minds of the world that, since her death, talk of sainthood has surrounded her name.
Born Bertha Bowman in Yazoo City, Mississippi, Thea was baptized a Catholic in 1947. She entered the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration community in La Crosse, Wisconsin, in 1953. She professed vows in 1958. After earning her Bachelor of Arts degree at Viterbo University, Thea taught at Blessed Sacrament in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and Holy Child Jesus Catholic High School in Canton, Mississippi.
She went on to receive her master's and doctoral degrees from the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. then came back to La Crosse and taught English at Viterbo from 1972 to 1978. She served as Director of the Office of Intercultural Awareness for the Diocese of Jackson the next ten years.
Thea helped found the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans, Louisiana, and became a popular international speaker. She died in 1990 after a six-year struggle with cancer but her legacy and light shine on. (Thea Fest 2000, La Crosse, Wisconsin)
A timeless way to assess the impact of a person, an idea, a truth is to measure how many persons become aware of that person, that idea, that truth. The number of testaments to Sister Thea's life and work is growing exponentially.
"Bishop (Richard O.) Gerow definitely made history, when in November 1961, he accepted a black sister into his diocese. Sister Thea Bowman was the daughter of Dr. [and Mrs.] Theon Bowman in Canton, Mississippi. At the instigation of Father Luke Mikschl, Gerow approved Sister Thea's returning home to work in Canton. He, however, was very cautious and often advised Father Luke and Sister Thea to act inconspicuously and keep a low profile. Little did he know that Sister Thea would become one of the most important members of the Jackson Diocese, impressing everyone she met with her simplicity, devotion and love."
--Michael V. Namorato, The Catholic Church in Mississippi, 1911-1984: A History
"Sometimes a light surprises . . . It is the Lord who rises with healing on his wings. Sister Thea [invited] me to come to New Orleans for the next summer session (1986) of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University. She wanted me to team teach a course with her, The Spirituality of Black Literature. She assured me that I would find the experience grace-filled, that she was convinced that I belonged at the Institute and she told me that the new director of the Institute would contact me and make all the formal arrangements. And it came to pass just as she announced.
I arrived in New Orleans the night before classes began. That evening Thea and I sat on a bench outside the chapel and talked for just under a half-hour. The next morning I found our classroom and my life changed forever."
--Joseph A. Brown, SJ, A Retreat with Thea Bowman and Bede Abram: Leaning on the Lord
"As a young person, Bowman was shy and eager to learn. As she grew in age and grace, she more boldly shared her gifts as a singer and dancer and spoke about the undervaluing of African Americans and women in church and society. 'I like being black. I like being myself, and I thank God for making me my black self,' was her theme.
Once she 'decided to come fully functioning,' to her church and the world, she urged her black audiences to remember that they too were whole and could stop being ashamed that our history included slavery. 'We didn't enslave ourselves. Somebody else enslaved us. Let the people who created slavery answer to God for it, and let us thank God for the cultural and faith traditions that enabled us to overcome it.'
A scholar and an inspiring teacher, she moved gracefully between the academy and the streets and did more to inspirit the African-American Roman Catholic community than any other twentieth century leader."
--Evelyn Mattern and Helen David Brancato, Why Not Become Fire? Encounters with Women Mystics
"Thea's vision was to be a joyful prophet of a new multi-ethnic Church and world -- a community of people without walls. By her association with the bishops, Thea demonstrated that one can choose to work to change the structures from within.
As a creative educator, artistic dancer, powerful singer, and dynamic lecturer, Sister Thea left a tremendous legacy of gospel living that will inspire, instruct, and enlighten generations to come. In her native African dress, she made people clap their hands, dance, and sing. She promoted intercultural awareness, understanding, and pride in Black culture. Even TV correspondent Mike Wallace and the Roman Catholic bishops experienced the joy she exuded."
--Bridget Mary Meehan, Praying with Visionary Women
"Thea Bowman in flesh and blood and bones is gone from us, but her spiritual legacy remains. She belongs now to all of humanity, to a world desperately in need of the expansion and deepening of that legacy. Her legacy is quite clear yet mysterious, attracting and energizing others in their own ministries."
--Christian Koontz, RSM, Thea Bowman Handing on Her Legacy
(For additional perspectives, see More Writers Recall Her Life.)
More about Thea
Graphics -- Used with permission