Servant of God Thea Bowman was a religious sister and teacher who intrepidly brought people of different races together in Jesus Christ. Bertha Bowman was born in 1937 in Yazoo City, Mississippi. Her grandfather was born a slave. Her parents, Theon and Mary Esther, had their only child late in life. Theon was a physician and Mary Esther was a teacher, and they practiced the Methodist faith. While Bertha was still a baby, the family moved to nearby Canton, not far from the state Capital of Jackson.
When she was nine years old, Bertha, after having very positive encounters with the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration and the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity, wished to become Catholic. Her parents allowed her to make this decision, and she was conditionally Baptized and received her First Holy Communion. At age twelve, she was enrolled at Holy Child Jesus Catholic School, which was operated by these two congregations in Canton. In the days of minimal civil rights for Black Americans, Bertha’s cultural environment in Canton provided skills for her to deal with the often-times brutal discrimination and segregation that was embedded into the mid-twentieth century United States.
A BRAVE RELIGIOUS VOCATION
When she was fifteen, Bertha told her parents that she wanted to become a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. The next year, she left to begin her formation at the order’s motherhouse in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She was the only Black woman in the community. When she made her profession, she took the name Sister Mary Thea, to honor both the Blessed Virgin Mary and her beloved father, Theon. She attended Viterbo University, which was operated by her order, earning her Bachelor’s Degree in English in 1965. She then went to the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C., earning her Master’s Degree in English in 1969, and went on there to earn her doctorate in English and linguistics in 1972. Sister Thea then returned to Wisconsin, teaching multiple grade levels at Catholic schools and at Viterbo University, where she became a professor. Later, she also taught at Catholic University of America and at Xavier University in New Orleans. She became well-known as a dynamic teacher and evangelizer who brought the joy of the Gospel to people wherever she went.
RETURN TO MISSISSIPPI ROOTS
In 1978, desiring to return to Mississippi to take care of her now-elderly parents, Sister Thea requested of her superiors to return to Canton. The Bishop of Jackson, Joseph Brunini, created a position for her in his diocese, directing the Office of Intercultural Affairs. She spoke often to Black congregations, bringing them hope and inspiration about living the Gospel message. She spoke to white congregations, bringing them an awareness of the goodness of her people’s culture. To all, her natural enthusiasm and joy shone through, as she strove to motivate people to a firm belief that through faith in Christ our differences and distrust be resolved. With time, her speaking engagements spread throughout the country, to Canada, and to Africa.
1984 was a difficult year for Sister Thea. Both of her parents passed away, and she was diagnosed with breast cancer. While she fought this life-threatening disease, she continued her extensive speaking and work schedule. In 1987, she was very involved in the publishing of a new Catholic hymnal, which was created for Black Catholics, in order that their musical traditions not be forgotten. As her illness progressed, leaving her increasingly weak, she was undeterred in keeping her active life. In 1989, she made a memorable speech from her wheelchair to a gathering of the United States Catholic bishops, teaching them about African American culture, and encouraging them to be leaders in putting an end to the tragic history of racism. She died in Canton, Mississippi on March 30, 1990 at age fifty-two. She requested that her tombstone be engraved with the words, “She tried”.
Servant of God Thea Bowman was a woman whose strength came from her prayer life and devotion to the Blessed Sacrament for which her order was known, giving her a love for people that was obvious to all who met her. She did not allow resentment and discrimination to make her bitter, but radiated the joy of knowing Christ. She may have done more than any other person to break down racial barriers in the American Catholic Church. When the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops met in November of 2018, they gave their support to advance the canonization cause of Sister Thea. Her current status is a “Servant of God”, while all known information about her life is compiled for submission to the Vatican Congregation For The Causes Of Saints, who will determine whether she lived a life of heroic virtue.