She was the granddaughter of a slave, an advocate for racial justice, and the first African American woman to address the U.S. bishops’ conference. Two years ago, her sainthood cause was opened.
“Sr. Thea was an outstanding teacher and she was an outstanding speaker. And she had a voice like an opera star, and she could sing really beautifully and people loved to be with her,” said Sister Charlene Smith, a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration (FSPA). “I often say she was a whole lot like Jesus. People love to be around her, and I was one of those people that was lucky enough to be around her.”
At age 51, Bowman became the first African American woman to address the U.S. bishops’ conference. Wheelchair-bound and fighting cancer, she delivered a memorable address about race and Catholicism before inviting the bishops to join her in singing and swaying to black spiritual music.
Sister Thea was born Bertha Bowman in Yazoo City, Mississippi in 1937 to a lawyer and a teacher. Although she was raised Protestant, she decided to become a Catholic at the age of nine. Visiting a variety of Christian denominations, she was moved by the kindness and generosity of the Franciscans Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, whose school she subsequently attended.
When she turned 15, she moved to Wisconsin and entered the order’s novitiate. Although her parents tried to persuade their daughter to enter an African American community, she was determined to enter the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, whose warmth and love had drawn her to the Catholic faith six years prior.
At the time, she was the first and only black sister of the community in La Crosse. When she began teaching at a Catholic elementary school in La Crosse, Bowman would teach about racial diversity, and about the importance of love.
As the civil rights movement grew in the years that followed, Bowman worked to advance racial justice. She helped establish the National Black Sisters Conference and advocated for an increased representation of American American people in Church leadership. She called for more encounters between white and non-white Catholics, and for a welcoming of music from different cultural backgrounds.
Bowman became a noted public speaker, and travelled around the country, talking about race and the Catholic faith. She continued to travel and teach even after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 1984, even landing an interview with 60 Minutes.
In 1989, Bowman delivered what would become a famous speech at the spring meeting of the U.S. bishops’ conference. “What does it mean to be black and Catholic?” asked Sr. Thea. “It means that I bring myself, my black self. 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.”
Bowman had a profound impact on the bishops, and on many other people who heard her words. “When that speech was over, they wheeled her off the podium and out into a hall. And one by one, the bishops came to her and knelt before her, in her wheelchair, and asked for her blessing. That’s how much they thought about her,” Sr. Charlene said.
Bowman died March 30, 1990. Her canonization cause was opened by the Diocese of Jackson in 2018. Sister Charlene said Bowman’s impact lives on after her death, with schools named after the sister, events held in her memory, memorials established in her honour, and at least 40 books mentioning her story and influence.
Sr. Charlene pointed out that Bowman would likely find hope in the recent protests demanding racial equality and justice in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
“Right now this is a time when we’re learning. I think the people in the United States are learning a whole lot more about our history, how we were terrible to the Native Americans and how we were terrible to the African Americans, and so we’re learning history,” she said. “Thea knew all of that and she let it be known that she knew that.”
“I’m sure she’s watching what’s going on in the United States. And I think she’s cheering for the African Americans and all of the people who have been subjected to pain and injustice,” Smith continued. “She was very much concerned that people be treated fairly, be treated as children of God. So she’d be happy with what’s going on.”