Tuesday, November 12, 2013

National Black Catholic History Month: Sister Thea Bowman, F.S.P.A., PhD

"Are you walkin with me?" Sister Thea Bowman from UM Southern Studies on Vimeo.

The woman who became known as Sister Thea Bowman was born Bertha Bowman in 1937 in Yazoo City, Miss. She was the only child of a teacher and the city's only black physician.

Although her parents were Methodists, they sent her to the Holy Child Jesus mission school in the city, which was staffed by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. She was so impressed by the sisters' example and work that she converted to Catholicism while still in elementary school and became a member of FSPA, taking the name Thea, while still a teen.

After studying at Vitterbo University and Catholic University of America, where she wrote her dissertation on William Faulkner, Sister Thea began teaching, a career that would ultimately take her to schools and universities in Wisconsin, Louisiana and her native Mississippi.

After she had worked nearly two decades as a teacher, the bishop of her home diocese of Jackson, Miss., invited her to work as a consultant for intercultural awareness, meaning that she had to take on the complicated work of trying to find ways to bring black and white Catholics together both in Mississippi and nationwide at a time when much of the nation was still grappling with how the Civil Rights Movement had changed the country. She also encouraged U.S. bishops to pay attention to and try to find ways to incorporate the voices of black Catholics. Sister Thea was a charismatic speaker who made dozens of appearances each year.

She worked with Archbishop James P. Lyke on the popular African American Catholic hymnal, Lead Me, Guide Me.

Sister Thea was diagnosed with breast cancer in the mid-1980s. She famously told friends, admirers and the people who came to hear her speak that she was not cowed by her diagnosis.

"I want to live until I die," she said.

By the late 1980s, she had to give her acclaimed speeches and presentations from a wheelchair.

Sister Thea died in 1990, at age 52, in the home where she grew up.

Schools and community centers in Pittsburgh, Penn.; East St. Louis, Ill.; Utica, N.Y.; Cleveland, Ohio; and Gary, Ind.; among others, are named for her.

Follow my National Black Catholic History Month tag for more information on black Catholic notables.

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