JACKSON, Miss. — On the last day of this year’s fall USCCB plenary assembly in Baltimore, the U.S. bishops put aside the worries and stress of a Church in turmoil over sexual scandal and corruption and found cause for celebration: They unanimously approved the opening of the cause for sainthood of Sister Thea Bowman, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration.
Bishop Joseph Kopacz of the Diocese of Jackson, Mississippi, Sister Thea’s home diocese, opened her cause officially Nov. 18, when he read the official edict during a Mass at the Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle in Jackson.
Those who knew Sister Thea, a convert to the faith, in person or through her work, see her cause as a new opening for the Catholic Church to offer a faithful witness to Christ in a nation still struggling with racism and a loss of Christian faith.
Sister Thea was born Bertha Bowman Dec. 29, 1937, in Yazoo City, Mississippi, and soon after her birth, her family moved to Canton, Mississippi, about 30 miles from the state capital and the Jackson diocesan see city. Her father, Theon Bowman, was a physician, and her mother, Mary Esther Bowman, was a teacher. Sister Thea was baptized in the Episcopalian Church and raised Methodist, but her natural wonder led her to express to her parents a desire to become Catholic.
At the age of 9, Bowman was conditionally baptized in the Catholic Church — according to Father Maurice Nutt, a student and biographer of Sister Thea, and Mary Woodward, chancellor of the Diocese of Jackson — and made her first Communion.
Because Sister Thea’s parents placed a premium on education, they enrolled their only child, at the age of 12, in Holy Child Jesus Catholic School in Canton. As a student, Sister Thea was inspired by the work of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration and the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity, a male religious congregation, who staffed Holy Child Jesus parish.
In 1953, Sister Thea entered the Franciscan Sisters’ formation program at the congregation’s motherhouse in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and in honor of her father, she took the religious name Thea (which means “of God”).
After attending The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., to become a teacher, Sister Thea earned her master’s degree and a doctorate in English and linguistics before returning to teach at the Franciscan Sisters’ own Viterbo College (now Viterbo University) in La Crosse; from there, she taught at several other Catholic schools of higher learning.
She returned to Canton to serve the Diocese of Jackson as the director of the Office of Intercultural Awareness, a position created specifically for her.
In 1984, Sister Thea was diagnosed with breast cancer; the same year, both her parents died. Despite her grief and the cancer’s aggressive progress, Sister Thea maintained an equally aggressive schedule of engagements around the country, speaking about the importance of faith in Christ as a solution to the racial problems facing the country.
A hallmark moment in her life came in 1989 at Seton Hall University in East Orange, New Jersey, when she appeared as a special guest speaker for the U.S. bishops. During her talk, she encouraged the bishops to take the lead in healing the national rift created by racism and concluded her remarks by bringing the bishops together, arm in arm, to sing the traditional African-American spiritual We Shall Overcome.
After learning about her diagnosis, Sister Thea promised to “live until I die,” and according to many who knew her, she did just that. On March 30, 1990, Sister Thea succumbed to her cancer and was buried beside her parents and an uncle in Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis, Tennessee.
A day after the USCCB’s fall 2018 meeting in Baltimore, on Nov. 15, the bishops approved a pastoral letter on race, “Open Wide Our Hearts.” In the letter, the bishops indicated that the root solution to racism in the U.S. is a turning to Christ.
“What is needed, and what we are calling for, is a genuine conversion of heart, a conversion that will compel change and the reform of our institutions and society. Conversion is a long road to travel for the individual,” the letter states. “Moving our nation to a full realization of the promise of liberty, equality and justice for all is even more challenging. However, in Christ we can find the strength and the grace necessary to make that journey.”
Sister Thea served as a model for such conversion: first in her search for Jesus as a child in her Methodist upbringing and subsequently through her experiences at Holy Child Jesus parish and as a sister in consecrated life.
“But once when I went to the Catholic [C]hurch, my wanderings ceased,” she said in her writings, quoted in her biography at the Sister Thea Bowman Foundation website. “I knew I had found that for which I had been seeking.”
She experienced another profound conversion of heart, this time to embrace God’s call in her life to become a consecrated religious. In her 1989 address to the bishops at Seton Hall, she explained how members of the two orders serving at Holy Child Jesus inspired her to give her life to Jesus in service to his Church.
“Catholic Christians came into my community,” she said, “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 told us for so long that we were nothing and would amount to nothing. And I wanted to be a part of that effort. That’s radical Christianity; that’s radical Catholicism.”
Diocese of Jackson
While it is customary for the cause of a “Servant of God” to originate with the religious order to which the individual belongs, Bishop Kopacz told the Register that he and the Franciscan Sisters saw it as more fitting for her home diocese to open her cause.
While Sister Thea’s mission and ministry, Bishop Kopacz said, extended around the nation and around the globe, it was in the Magnolia State that she first found her Catholic faith.
“The exciting part of the process is that, here’s a person who is a child of the soil of Mississippi,” Bishop Kopacz said. “Here was her family and her origins, all the way until she went into the FSPA. She really is a Mississippi story and part of the reality of grace and culture and history of Mississippi, one that God took and brought to a whole new world in Wisconsin.”
According to Bishop Kopacz, the planning process to open Sister Thea’s cause began in November 2017; and in May 2018 he requested that the USCCB place a vote for approval of her cause on the fall 2018 meeting agenda.
“A bishop doesn’t absolutely have to bring the opening of a cause to the USCCB conference in plenary assembly,” Bishop Kopacz said. “You can do it regionally. But you want to do it nationally, because you want the Church to know nationally what this cause is about and what this beautiful saint-in-the-making is about.”
A member of the three-person historical commission for Sister Thea’s cause, Franciscan Sister Mary Ann Gschwind, is helping the Diocese of Jackson compile biographical data on Sister Thea to send to Rome. She reported that the FSPA archive in La Crosse contains numerous files pertaining to Sister Thea’s life.
“We have about 20 Hollinger boxes [standard-sized archival containers] and three file drawers of Sister Thea’s writings and speeches,” she said. “We also have many artifacts, such as honorary degrees she received, and we just received the cross that was placed on Sister Thea’s coffin at her funeral Mass.”
But Sister Mary Ann already knows a great deal about her fellow Franciscan sister, as the two sisters were roommates and fellow postgraduate English majors at CUA in 1966.
“When we were young nuns, she was a couple classes ahead of me in profession,” Sister Mary Ann said. “We got to be good friends.”
What struck Sister Mary Ann about her friend became the trademark of her commitment to a life of generous service to God and his children.
“She was open to everyone and respectful of everyone,” Sister Mary Ann said, noting that Sister Thea befriended a bus driver named Randy whom the two sisters met on the commute from their dorm to the university. “Randy and Sister Thea got to be good friends,” Sister Mary Ann said. “He was African-American, and I guess he didn’t see too many African-American religious sisters riding his bus.”
She also became friends with people on the other end of the economic spectrum, Sister Mary Ann noted.
“There was this woman in D.C. who was a donor to the (FSPA) mission in Canton,” she said. “Every summer she’d invite Thea over for dinner to her very plush apartment, and she had a maid who would cook for us. Thea always took me along with her — and, God bless Thea, she knew I didn’t like steak, but she did — and they would have a steak dinner and Thea would ask if the maid could make a hamburger for her friend Mary Ann. She was that thoughtful. It seems such a small thing, but she was always that way.”
Camille Lewis Brown is associate superintendent for school leadership and community programs for the Archdiocese of Baltimore and author of African Saints, African Stories: 40 Holy Men and Women (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2008), which includes a chapter on Sister Thea in the book’s “Saints in Waiting” section. Brown said she did not know Sister Thea in person, but the Franciscan sister has been her teaching partner since Brown served as a professor at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia in the mid-1990s.
“I was teaching a class on the history of black Catholics in the United States, and after the first two classes, I recognized that my students were getting angry over the material,” she said. “We went through how Catholicism emerged, and we began discussing the slave trade and the Catholic Church’s involvement with that.”
in 1839, Pope Gregory XVI issued the papal bull In Supremo Apostolatus denouncing the slave trade and the institution of slavery. But according to The Catholic University of America’s “American Catholic History Classroom” website, even after the 1839 document was published, “Many American Catholics supported pro-slavery positions with the claim that Jesus frequently used masters and slaves in his parables without condemning the institution of slavery itself.”
To show a positive side to the history of the Catholic Church in relation to African-Americans, Brown introduced her classes to A Retreat With Thea Bowman and Bede Abrams by Joseph Brown (Franciscan Father Bede was an African-American educator and Catholic theologian who shared many of the same concerns as Sister Thea regarding race relations). “This book talked about the richness that black Catholics have brought to the Church,” Brown said, adding that Sister Thea’s message in the book was particularly positive. “God loves us; we’re his: That was Sister Thea’s message. It was about hope and celebration.”
Brown said that the opening of Sister Thea’s cause can help the Church — and the country — refocus on the contributions that this African-American religious sister and other black Catholics have made to Catholic and American history.
“The timing is perfect because of the racial unrest in the country,” she said, “but the message is about trying. The message is about putting forth an effort. That’s Sister Thea’s message: If we take one step, God is going to move us along 10 more steps.”
On the tombstone she shares with her parents, beneath her name and dates, Sister Thea had inscribed a simple message summing up her life: “She Tried.” Brown said the epigraph reflects Sister Thea’s effort in bringing Christ to the world despite the challenges she faced.
“As a woman of color, I know what she was up against,” she said. “I know how people hated her, said mean things to her and mistreated her, or opportunities were denied her. ... When you’re faced with oppression and negativity, you can fight it, you can run away from it, or you can freeze and do nothing about it. But Sister Thea didn’t do any of those things. She navigated her way through life and kept her eye on Jesus. That’s resilience at its best. She was able to do that. For her to say, ‘I tried’ — well, I think she more than tried.”
Soon after Sister Thea’s cause was opened, Bishop Kopacz made a pilgrimage to this same tombstone and reflected on the holy nun’s work in the Church.
“I hope that when people can get past their prejudices and ignorance about the Catholic faith,” Bishop Kopacz told the Register, “they will see this woman of color who has achieved scholarship and leadership and reached that level of respect in the Church. She serves as an example of Gospel living — she is a great representation of what the Catholic Church is.”
Joseph O’Brien writes from
Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin.
This is a longer version of the Jan. 6, 2019, print article.