In 1954 a young woman entered a Catholic community — The Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration (F.S.P.A.) in La Crosse, Wis. At that time, the evening meal custom was to dine in silence while listening to a spiritual reading. That night, the person reading was an African American woman. Because, at that time in the United States, blacks and whites were generally separated and segregated, the novice found herself thinking, “How interesting, the nuns have black people doing their reading.”
That initial impression is related by Charlene Smith, F.S.P.A., who later discovered that her Franciscan community did not have black servants and that the reader that evening was another Franciscan Sister, Thea Bowman. As diverse as the Catholic Church is worldwide, in the 1950s United States it was still rare to find African Americans as part of religious communities.
Bertha Bowman was born Dec. 29, 1937, in Yazoo City, Miss. She was the only child of Theon Edward, a physician, and Mary Esther, a teacher. Bertha’s grandfather was a slave. Bertha’s later calling to religious life may have had its roots in her father’s example. Dr. Bowman had the potential to enjoy a successful profession as a physician in New York City, but an aunt had suggested that his skills might be better used serving the African American community in Mississippi because, in the segregated south, blacks were denied medical care.
Soon after Bertha’s birth, the family moved to Canton, Miss., a small community of 8,000, half of whom were African American. The town was rigidly segregated. Whites had their streets and residential sections as did blacks. Except for shopping in stores owned and operated by whites, Bertha had no social contact with white people. She once said that “there was never a single white that I really knew.” Because both parents were educated, they wanted the same for their daughter. However, in the southern states of that day, African American children received a very limited education, often ending at the fifth or sixth grade.
A Methodist in a Catholic School
Though the family was Methodist, the best option for Bertha to receive an education was at a Catholic school, Holy Child Jesus in Canton. While the parents had some reservations about Catholicism, they, nevertheless, enrolled Bertha at Holy Child Jesus in the sixth grade. The school, administered by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, had been specifically established to educate African American children.
This fact made an indelible impression upon young Bertha Bowman. Whereas Southern whites dismissed blacks as inferior and immoral, the white Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration welcomed, embraced and loved her. “I was drawn to examine and accept the Catholic faith because of the day-to-day lived witness of Catholic Christians who first loved me, then shared with me their story, their values, their beliefs. . .then invited me to share with them in community prayer and mission,” she said. “As a child I did not recognize evangelization at work in my life. I did recognize love, service, community, prayer and faith.”
In that welcoming and loving environment created by the sisters, Bertha thrived intellectually and spiritually. She excelled in her studies, joined the school choir, and was given a vision of a world larger than the cotton fields of Mississippi. It was not long before Bertha announced to her parents her desire to become a Catholic and to enter religious life. Initial parental resistance eventually gave way to acceptance. In 1947 Bertha was baptized along with a little boy.
A few years later, in 1953, at age 15 Bertha left Mississippi to join the Franciscan Sisters at their motherhouse in the town of La Crosse, Wis. There she became the only African American member in the convent. There, at the St. Rose Convent, she was given the name “Thea” which mean “of God.” From then on, Bertha was Sister Thea who brought along her African American culture. One sister recalls: “It was a joy to sit beside her because her singing was so beautiful. She sang from her spirit.”
Thea’s superiors felt that, because of her inquisitive, grasping mind and love of children, the best use of her talents lay in her becoming a teacher. Progressing successfully through the formative years required for religious life, Thea took final vows in 1963. In addition, she studied and graduated with a B.A. degree in English from Viterbo College in LaCrosse. She taught fifth and sixth grades in that city for two years and then was delighted to be assigned as a teacher at Holy Child Jesus in Canton, Miss.
Thea returned home to teach at the same elementary school that had been so formative in her life. While there, her superiors encouraged her to continue graduate studies. In 1968 they sent her to The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where she earned a doctorate in English. That time period of her life coincided with the civil rights movement, the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the transformation of the nation regarding race.
Upon graduation, Thea returned to La Crosse, Wis., where, from 1972-1978, she taught African American literature and chaired the English department at Viterbo College. While there she founded and directed the “Hallelujah Singers” who became well known and highly popular for their singing of African American spirituals. There was considerable interest and demand for Thea to share her African American heritage, particularly the music, so the “Hallelujah Singers” received invitations regularly to perform throughout the United States.
Back Home in Canton
In 1978 her order kindly transferred Thea home to Canton so that she could care for her aging parents. There, she was appointed director of the Office of Intercultural Affairs for the Diocese of Jackson, Miss., a position that gave her a platform from which to critique lingering racial prejudice while promoting cultural awareness and sensitivity. She was also a founding faculty member of the Institute For Black Catholic Studies (1980) at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans.
With her years of experience and training, combined with a prophetic vision, she began to impact American Catholicism by providing an intellectual, spiritual, historical and cultural foundation for developing and legitimizing a distinct worship form for black Catholics. She 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.”
Thus, in 1987, Thea was instrumental in the publication of a seminal new African American Catholic hymnal, Lead Me, Guide Me: The African American Catholic Hymnal. Bishop James P. Lyke, O.F.M., auxiliary bishop of Cleveland, coordinated the hymnal project, saying it was born of the needs and aspirations of black Catholics. Thea was actively involved in helping select songs to be included.
Little by little, Thea gained both respect and a national reputation among Catholic leaders for urging and persuading them to offer religious services that reflected different cultural styles of music and worship. She also modeled the diversity herself by wearing African-style gowns and wearing her long hair in traditional braids. Through it all, Thea challenged the Church to adapt itself culturally to various expressions in order to retain vitality and growth.
When she was invited to address the U.S. Catholic bishops in June 1989, Thea began her address by singing the spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” Then she gently challenged the bishops to help her and other marginalized people find their rightful place within the Church.
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 traditions, my experiences, my culture, my African American song and dance and gesture and movement and teaching and preaching and healing and responsibility as gifts to the Church.
The bishops, powerfully and visibly moved, applauded her. When she finished they stood linking arms and singing as Thea led them in the spiritual, “We Shall Overcome.”
As the meeting ended, the bishops presented Thea with a dozen roses that she proudly held in the air proclaiming, “I accept these roses in memory of all the women who have nurtured you into the episcopacy.” The bishops applauded her once again. Later, one bishop later said, “At a time of much division in the Church, Sister Thea possesses the charismatic gifts to heal, to bring joy to the Church. She had no time for useless, destructive arguments. She was too busy celebrating life.”
Throughout her life, Thea affirmed and built on her African American spiritual roots. One of those foundations was Scripture. She said:
God was so alive in my world. I was reared around a lot of old people. They knew Scripture. I knew people who could not read or write, but they could quote you Scripture with chapter and verse. They would use Scripture when they were tired and Scripture when they were frustrated, Scripture to challenge us. . .Scripture to threaten you, Scripture to reward you or to praise you or to teach you. I grew up in that kind of world.
Of course, African American songs were instrumental in Thea’s spiritual formation as well. She shared her insights on the spiritual “Joshua Fit De Battle of Jericho” by saying:
There were no weapons, no M-16s, no bombs. There was no need for violence. The battle was in God’s hands. God commanded Joshua and the people. . .to encircle Jericho with music, ritual and celebration. God commanded the people to shout — One Lord, one faith, one united people — and the walls came tumbling down. The power of God and the power of a united, believing people prevailed.
Ultimately, it was the joy and love of the Franciscan sisters that impacted Thea’s soul, prompting her to become a Catholic and join their order. In turn, she came to love the liturgy and spirituality of Catholicism. Yet, it was her encounter with white religious sisters that opened the window of her soul. Through their lives she saw white Christians who “preached” love not hatred, unity not division. Years later, in a television interview in Wisconsin, Thea spoke glowingly of the sisters who came to be with her people,
Catholic Christians came into my community, and they helped us with education, they helped us with health care, they helped us to find our self-respect and to realize our capabilities when the world had told us for so long that we were nothing and would amount to nothing. And I wanted to be part of that effort. That’s radical Christianity, that’s radical Catholicism.
Throughout her entire life, she never forgot the kindness of her Franciscan sisters and that she was one of them. “I am a Franciscan,” she declared. “I want to be an instrument of peace. I want to be an instrument of hope. I want to be an instrument of faith and joy.”
In 1984, Thea was diagnosed with cancer and began a six-year struggle. Despite the debilitating effects of treatment, illness and confinement to a wheelchair, she continued to be the main African American spokesperson for the Church to heighten its intercultural and interracial awareness. During those six years, her prayer was simple but profound, “Lord, let me live until I die. If that prayer is answered, how long really doesn’t matter.”
At the young age of 52, Thea, the granddaughter of a slave who became a Catholic sister, died in Canton on March 30, 1990. Tributes were paid from all over the country. In New York, Cardinal John O’Connor devoted his column in his diocesan newspaper to her, writing: “Friedrich Nietzsche said, ‘The world no longer believes because believers no longer sing.’ He didn’t know Sister Thea Bowman, dark nightingale. I am grateful that I did.” On April 4, Thea was buried next to her parents in Elmwood Cemetery, Memphis, Tenn. The words she requested to be engraved on her white tombstone were these: “She tried.” TP
Rev. Parachin, an ordained minister, is a freelance writer and author of several books, including, Lessons for Living From the 23rd Psalm (Resurrection Press) and Prayers From Around the World and Across the Ages (ACTA).