A religious leader, scholar, and activist, Sister Thea Bowman was a unique voice in African American Catholicism. The granddaughter of slaves, Thea (originally named Bertha) was born in 1937 to physician Theon Edward Bowman and teacher Mary Esther Bowman in Yazoo City and raised in nearby Canton. Faced with inadequate public education, she transferred in 1949 to Canton’s Holy Child Jesus Catholic School, administered by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. Bowman later recalled that only two dozen of the school’s 180 students were Catholic; the vast majority were Baptist, Methodists, and holiness. Her experience at the school led her to “accept the Catholic faith because of the day-to-day lived witness of Catholic Christians who first loved me.” Bowman’s educational experience also prompted her lifelong mission to advance the cause of education both as a secular means of personal improvement and as a religious tool of evangelization.
Bowman traveled to Lan Crosse, Wisconsin, in 1953 to enter the community of Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. She joined their ranks in 1956 and took the name Thea, meaning “of God.” Bowman the took a position teaching at Blessed Sacrament School in La Crosse. She returned home to Canton in 1961 to teach English and music at Holy Child Jesus School. From 1968 to 1972 Bowman studied English at Catholic University of America. Bowman then toured Europe and returned to La Crosse in 1972 to teach and serve as head of the English department at Viterbo College.
Bowman frequently wrote and spoke on the importance of pluralism and multiculturalism within the church, calling on church leaders to “abandon the Catholic ghetto mentality” that isolated the church from dialogue with other cultures and religions. In 1978 Bowman returned to Mississippi to care for her parents and to take a position with the Diocese of Jackson as director of the Office of Intercultural Awareness. She fought for the inclusion of “black expression” in Catholic preaching and liturgy. Bowman assisted in the founding of the Institute of Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans in 1980 and served on its faculty through 1989. She aggressively campaigned for the incorporation of African American hymns into Catholic worship. Bowman noted that African American Catholics in the 1940s “had to leave behind us the music that was an expression of the spirituality of our home, community, and upbringing.” Vatican II increased the opportunity for expression of that heritage. In 1987 Bowman authored the introduction to Lead Me, Guide Me: The African American Catholic Hymnal. She wrote that African American hymns were “shared by black American Christians across time, geographic, socioeconomic, and denominational lines.” The following year, she recorded an album of African American spirituals, Sister Thea: Songs of My People.
Bowman addressed the annual conference of United States bishops on 17 June 1989 at Seton Hall University, delivering a powerful speech on “Being a Black Catholic.” She warned the bishops that African Americans remained “victims within the church of paternalism.” According to Bowman, the absence of black leadership inside the church coupled with paternalism fostered a “mission mentality” whereby African Americans did not feel called to or responsible for taking action within the church. She implored the bishops to maintain Catholic educational programs as the “primary instrument of evangelization within the black community.” In an appeal for unity, Bowman beseeched the church to be “truly Catholic . . . overcome the poverty, overcome the loneliness, overcome the alienation, and build together a new holy city.”
Starting in 1974, Bowman regularly attended and spoke at the Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference sponsored by the University of Mississippi. She challenged the scholars who attended these conferences to think differently about the relationship between Faulkner and African Americans. Fittingly enough, Bowman’s final presentation to the 1989 conference was “Faulkner and Religion.”
In 1984 Bowman was diagnosed with breast cancer. The cancer subsequently spread to her bones and confined her to a wheelchair. Days prior to her death, she proclaimed, “This Holy Week when Jesus gave his life for love, let us truly love one another.” Bowman died on 30 March 1990.
Bowman was the subject of a 60 Minutes interview in 1987 and received numerous honorary degrees and awards for advancing the cause of women, promoting peace and justice, and supporting black Catholic education. Schools, clinics, a retirement home, a retreat house, and a theater have been named for her, and educational scholarships are given in her name. Her canonization is under way.
- Joseph A. Brown, A Retreat with Thea Bowman and Bede Abram: Leaning on the Lord (1997)
- Celestine Cepress, ed., Sister Thea Bowman, Shooting Star: Selected Writings and Speeches (1993)
- Lisa Neumann Howorth and the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, “Are You Walkin’ with Me?” Sister Thea Bowman, William Faulkner, and African American Culture (DVD 1990)