Sr. Thea Bowman, (1937-1990), teacher, preacher, public speaker
By Tevin V. Williams
Sister Thea Bowman was born in Canton Mississippi in 1937 to a loving family. Although she was not born into slavery in the United States, her grandfather was a slave. Despite this and the time period, Sister Bowman’s father was a physician and her mother was a teacher. Surprisingly, she was born into a Methodist family and at the age of 9 years-old she asked to become a Catholic.
With her faith being guided by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration and the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity, she started to honor her Catholic faith through her work and personal life. Sister Bowman earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in English at Viterbo University, and then went on to complete her Master of Arts and Ph.D. in English at Catholic University of America. As a teacher she honored her Catholic faith by spreading God’s love through her work, and being a light to all. She taught in elementary school in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and then at a high school in Canton Mississippi. Going on to teach at the university level, she was a professor at Viterbo University, Catholic University of America, and Xavier University. After being an educator for 16 years, she was invited by the bishop of Jackson, Mississippi to become a consultant for intellectual awareness. Her role included bringing people together through various forms of singing, gospel preaching, prayer, and storytelling all aimed at breaking down the racial and cultural barriers. As a consultant, her “ministry of love” stretched internationally from Nigeria to Canada, all the way to New York. Sister Bowman was also highly influential in the publishing of the Catholic hymnal: Lead Me, Guide Me: The African American Catholic Hymnal. (The first of its kind made by the black community.)
Living a life for God and traveling the world, Sister Thea Bowman received devastating news that she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1984, along with her parents dying that same year. Despite the news, Sister Bowman stated she would: “ [I will] live until I die.” She continued her speaking engagements, always carried a smile and a joyous spirit, despite being in a wheelchair and the cancer metastasizing to her bones. She did not let the deterioration of her body keep her from one unprecedented event – an opportunity to address the U.S. Bishops at their annual June meeting held in 1989 at Seton Hall University. Sister Thea spoke to the bishops as a sister having a “heart to heart” conversation with her brothers. She explained what it meant to be African-American and Catholic. She enlightened the bishops on African-American history and spirituality. 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. When she was done speaking, she invited the bishops to move together, cross arms and sing with her, “We Shall Overcome.” She seemingly touched the hearts of the bishops as evidenced by their thunderous applause and tears flowing from their eyes. She passed away of cancer on March 30, 1990 at age 52 in Canton, Mississippi.
Christopher Pramuk, author of Hope Sings, So Beautiful: Graced Encounters Across the Color Line, wrote:
“Arguably no person in recent memory did more to resist and transform the sad legacy of segregation and racism in the Catholic Church than Thea Bowman … who inspired millions with her singing and message of God’s love for all races and faiths. Sister Thea awakened a sense of fellowship in people both within and well beyond the Catholic world, first and foremost through her charismatic presence.”
She was named a “Servant of God” in 2018, the first of four steps of becoming a Saint. She is quoted saying: “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 would have a tremendous light.” Sister Thea Bowman’s life showed the world a great example of what being a servant for God truly can look like, and that the kingdom of Heaven is full of beautiful people such as herself.