“I bring myself, my black self, all that I am, all that I have, all that I hope to become… as gift to the Church,” Sister Thea Bowman in her Address to the USCCB, June 1989.
Her Early Years
At Sister Thea’s funeral on April 3, 1990, the question “Who was Sister Thea?” reverberated off the church walls of Holy Child Jesus in Canton, Mississippi. It was a difficult question to answer. Why? Well, simply put, words cannot begin to capture the depth of her soul and the indelible impact she had on the lives she touched.
To paint a picture of her life on this side of eternity, we begin on the mild winter day of December 29, 1937 in Yazoo City, Mississippi. Sister Thea was a single child, born to a physician father, teacher mother, and granddaughter to an African slave. She was raised Methodist, but inspired by the service of the Trinity Missionaries in Canton, she converted to Catholicism at age nine. She was educated by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, who were stationed in Canton to provide educational opportunities to the segregated Black children, and, at age fifteen, she joined their religious community in LaCrosse, Wisconsin.
Sister Thea headed north seemingly escaping the racism prevalent in the Jim Crow South; however, she was welcomed not only by the blustery winters of the Midwest, but also the icy storms of discrimination of some sisters in her religious community. She was the first and only Black religious sister. “Black people go to nigger heaven together with the dogs and other animals,” the older religious sisters told teenage Sister Thea (Thea’s Song: The Life of Thea Bowman, 55). When asked by a friend why she didn’t leave the convent, she responded, “I knew that God wanted me. I knew that Jesus called me. I wasn’t going to let a group of stupid white women tell me that I could not go the way God wanted me to go!” (ibid., 55-56) And so she continued down the road God paved for her, earning her B.A. in English from Viterbo University in 1965, then her M.A. and Ph.D. in English at Catholic University of America in 1972. She would later teach at both her alma maters and become a founding member of the National Black Catholic Sisters Conference and the Institute of Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans.
After spending sixteen years in education, in 1978, the Bishop of Jackson, Mississippi invited Sister Thea to lead the Office of Intercultural Affairs. She embraced her role with great joy and responsibility. She worked diligently to empower the black community from all faiths, with a concentration on Black Catholics, and educate others on the richness of African-American history and experience. “Those who survived the indignity of the Middle Passage came to the American continent bringing treasure of African heritage,” she reminds us, “…African way of thinking, of proceeding, of understanding values, of celebrating life, of walking and talking and healing and learning and singing and praying” (Sister Thea’s Address in the USCCB). In 1987 she was instrumental to the inaugural Black Catholic hymnal, Lead Me, Guide Me: The African American Catholic Hymnal and produced the albums Songs of My People and ‘Round the Glory Manger in 1988.
In 1989, Sister Thea was invited to address the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on what it means to be Black and Catholic in America. She began her address bellowing operatically, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, Sometimes I feel like a motherless child… a long way from home.” Sister Thea adds that the Church is her home, that Heaven is her home, and she petitions the cardinals, bishops and the Church to help her get home. Sister Thea goes on to describe the African-American journey as one that includes slavery, “my people came over here on slave ships in chains…[to] an alien land,” and by “surviving our history physically, mentally, emotionally, morally, spiritually, faithfully, and joyfully,” her people brought to this alien land “the secret memory of Africa… the memory of color and texture.” A memory that the Church and the country has yet, even in 2021, to fully appreciate. In 1989, Sister Thea shares, Blacks are disproportionately poor, making up more than one-third of families living in poverty, lacking the basic necessities such as food and shelter, and children lacking “equal access and equal opportunity because poverty doomed them to low birth rate and retardation and unequal opportunity to education.” Sister Thea strongly believes education is the key to evangelization in Black communities, an integral component to rising out of poverty and to giving Black families a chance to flourish in this country. She says, “ignorance cripples us and kills us.”
Sister Thea does not mince words. The heaviness of the reality of racism, discrimination, oppression, and poverty that plagues Black families does not for one instance dilute their “African spiritual and cultural gifts – wisdom, faith and faithfulness, art and drama…song and instrumentation.” African-American history brings “a totality of minds, imagination, memory, feeling, passion, emotion, intensity,” and it knows “how to find joy even in the time of sorrow.” Sister Thea’s message to the bishops, and throughout her life was one of celebration, what she termed “embodied, incarnate praise.” This embodied worship offered to God demands the entire person to offer herself to Him in love.
As Sister Thea put it,
“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 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.”
Sister Thea was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1984 and traversed into her Heavenly Homeland March 30, 1990. She was fifty-two. In her June 1989 address to the USCCB, as she sat in her wheelchair on that stage, she moved the members of the Church hierarchy to join hands and sing aloud “We Shall Overcome”. At the close of her address she accepted a bouquet of roses “in the name of all the mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters and friends, all the women who have brought you to priesthood, who have nurtured you toward episcopacy, who have strengthened you in faith and hope and love.” She accepted those roses on behalf of us.
Rising to the Challenge
As we celebrate the life and legacy of Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman, let us rise up to the threefold challenge posed by Sister Thea to us today. First, she celebrated our unity in diversity (1 Cor 12) and we are challenged to join her in the celebration. Second, we must be keenly conscious and not shy away from the African-American history that continues to impact our Black brothers and sisters today. In their tragic history, we see a reflection of Christ’s life in a unique and profound way as the wounds of racism are vibrantly visible as the wounds on Jesus’ body hanging on the Cross. At the same time, we affirm the beauty of their African heritage that injects joy and passion and an understanding of solidarity into our society and into our Church.
Finally, let’s challenge ourselves to imitate Sister Thea and her total self-gift to the mystical Body of Christ on earth, the Church. Just as Christ emptied Himself for love of His Bride, the Church (Phil 2:7), so Sister Thea imitated Him in offering her life as a eucharistic gift. As a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, we can imagine Sister Thea sitting in the small Adoration chapel in the early morning hours alone with her Beloved Who was present in the simple monstrance upon the altar. As she gazes at Him lovingly, we hear her say to Him, “I bring Myself, My black Self, all that I am, all that I have, My whole history, My experience, Teaching, Preaching, and Healing, and Responsibility…This is My Life given up for you.” (cf. Lk 20:19; Mt 26:26; 1 Cor 11:24). Let us challenge ourselves to discover the unique beauty that we have been blessed with and let’s not keep any of it for ourselves, but offer it all to the Lord and His Church.
Your Sister in Christ,
A version of this post was first published on 2-11-21 at Catholic Women in Business.
Vanessa Crescio is an accountant with the Archdiocese of Saint Louis. She holds an MBA from the University of Notre Dame and an MTS from Newman University. She is interested in thinking through co-responsibility in the Church and developing leadership programs to form Catholics to serve the Church with not only their knowledge, skills, and abilities but with the servant heart of Christ.