BALTIMORE – At their annual Fall General Assembly, the U.S bishops participated in a consultation on the cause for sainthood of Thea Bowman, an African-American Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration who died in 1990 at the age of 52.
Bishop Robert Deeley, chairman of the Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance, and Bishop Joseph Kopacz of Jackson, Mississippi, the petitioner of the cause, facilitated the discussion. By a voice vote, the bishops indicated unanimous support for the advancement of the cause on the diocesan level, according to a USCCB press release.
Bertha Elizabeth Bowman was born in 1937, the only child of her middle-aged parents, Dr. Theon Bowman, a physician, and Mary Esther Bowman, a teacher. Raised in Canton, Mississippi, she converted to Catholicism as a child through the inspiration of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration and the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity who were her teachers and pastors at Holy Child Jesus Parish and School in Canton.
At an early age, she was exposed to the richness of her African-American culture and spirituality, especially the history, stories, songs, prayers, customs and traditions. At the age of 15, she told her parents and friends she wanted to join the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration and left the familiar Mississippi terrain to venture to LaCrosse, Wisconsin, where she would be the only African-American member of her religious community.
At her religious profession, she was given the name Sister Mary Thea in honor of the Blessed Mother and her father, Theon. Her name in religious life, Thea, literally means “God.” She was trained to become a teacher. She taught at all grade levels, eventually earning her doctorate and becoming a college professor of English and linguistics.
In 1984, Sister Thea faced devastating challenges: Both her parents died, and she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She vowed to “live until I die” and continued her rigorous schedule of speaking engagements. Even when it became increasingly painful and difficult to travel as the cancer metastasized to her bones, she was undeterred from witnessing and sharing her boundless love for God and the joy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Donning her customary African garb, Sister Thea would arrive in a wheelchair, with no hair (due to the chemotherapy treatments), but always with her joyful disposition and pleasant smile. 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 in 1989 at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. 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. She urged the bishops to continue to evangelize the African-American community, to promote inclusivity and full participation of African-Americans in church leadership, and to understand the necessity and value of Catholic schools in the African-American community. At the end of her address, she invited the bishops to move together, cross arms, join hands and sing with her “We Shall Overcome.” She clearly touched the hearts of the bishops, as evidenced by their thunderous applause and the tears flowing from their eyes.
During Sister Thea’s short lifetime, many people considered her a religious sister undeniably close to God and who lovingly invited others to encounter the presence of God in their lives. She is acclaimed as a “holy woman” in the hearts of those who knew and loved her and who continue to seek her intercession for guidance and healing.
There are several institutions named in her honor across the United States, including schools, an education foundation that help needy students attend Catholic universities, housing units for the poor and elderly, and a health clinic for the marginalized. Books, articles, catechetical resources, visual media productions and a stage play have been written about her. Prayer cards, paintings, statues and stained-glass windows bearing her image all attest to Sister Thea’s profound spiritual impact and example of holiness for the faithful.