Dan Stockman, Catholic News Service

Sister Thea Bowman, a trailblazing African-American sister who was the first and only black nun in her religious congregation and the first black woman to address the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, continues to inspire members of her order and others she touched throughout her life.

The Mississippi native was a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration. Her position in religious life allowed her to address racism in the Catholic Church at a time when the culture and traditions of African-American Catholics still were not widely accepted.

“Sister Thea always encouraged people to stand up for their rights and she continues to inspire,” Sister Eileen McKenzie, congregation president wrote in an emailed statement to the Global Sisters Report.

“As FSPA and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious pledge to unveil white privilege and purge the destructive effects of racism, we recognize Sister Thea’s cause to sainthood serves as a sign of the times. We believe she’d find hope that in this canonization process, there’s continued movement toward racial equity.”

The USCCB voted Nov. 14 at its fall general assembly in Baltimore to advance Sister Thea’s cause, opening the way for a diocesan commission to determine whether she lived a life of “extraordinary and heroic virtue.”

She was declared a “servant of God” May 15, when her home Diocese of Jackson, Mississippi, requested the bishops endorse opening her cause for sainthood. 

Sister Thea died of cancer March 30, 1990, at age 52.

Sister Eileen said her congregation will follow the Jackson Diocese’s lead as the process moves forward and that the community’s archives are open to commission officials.

There was a buzz in the motherhouse before and after the bishops’ vote, she said.

“We’re looking around with eyes wide, saying, where is this going?” Sister Eileen told Global Sisters Report. “It’s a fascinating time, and we’re having lots of conversations about how providential this moment is.”

Knew her calling

Born Bertha Thea Dec. 29, 1937, in Yazoo City, Mississippi, she was the daughter of a doctor and a teacher. She attended Holy Child Jesus School in Canton, 38 miles from her birthplace, run by the religious congregation she eventually joined. At age 8, she decided she wanted to become a Catholic and knew as a young teenager that she was called to consecrated life.

In the 1950s, she studied at Viterbo College in La Crosse, Wisconsin, where the order is based, while preparing to enter the convent. She later studied at The Catholic University of America in Washington.

Renowned for her preaching, she took her message nationwide, speaking at 100 venues a year until spreading cancer slowed her. Music was especially important to her. She would gather or bring a choir with her and often burst into song during her presentations.

In addition to her writings, her music resulted in two recordings, “Sister Thea: Songs of My People” and “‘Round the Glory Manger: Christmas Spirituals.”

Sister Marla Lang professed vows with the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in the same class as Sister Thea.

She said entering religious life is jarring for anyone, and Sister Thea had the additional pressure of being in an all-white congregation in an all-white city, not to mention the cultural — and weather-related — shock of moving to Wisconsin from the Deep South. But if Sister Thea was troubled by her circumstances, Sister Marla said, she didn’t show it.

“She had her spirituals, the music that was so beautiful. Most of us had been living with little or no contact with anyone of African descent, but her voice was so beautiful, it was just a very rich experience,” Sister Marla said.

Sister Mary Ann Gschwind was Sister Thea’s roommate during the summer of 1966 at CUA. Sister Mary Ann is the Franciscan sisters’ archivist and has been sworn in as a member of the historical commission for the sainthood cause.

Even at CUA, Sister Thea was unique. Sister Mary Ann said African-American sisters were on campus, but they belonged to African-American congregations. Because the sisters still wore traditional habits, it was easy to see that Sister Thea was from a white congregation.

“It took a lot of nerve for her to join our community,” Sister Mary Ann said. “I don’t think I could have done it if the situation were reversed.”

‘Heart and soul’

The investigation into Thea’s life will have no shortage of material to examine. The congregation’s archives contain three file drawers of Sister Thea’s speeches — most of which she wrote on scrap paper to avoid waste — and 20 bankers boxes of documents.

Dan Johnson-Wilmot was Sister Thea’s colleague at Viterbo in the 1970s, where he was a music department professor and she taught English and studied voice.

“Anyone who went to her presentations, I don’t think she ever had one where she didn’t sing,” Johnson-Wilmot said. “She had an uncanny gift. It didn’t matter who was there, she could weave a song into just about any kind of presentation she was giving, and people were just struck when she began singing because it was always from her heart and soul.”

Johnson-Wilmot said the two became fast friends after an incident that started out ugly but became just another sign of how Sister Thea could unite people.

Several African-American students from Canton, Mississippi, at Viterbo formed the core of Hallelujah Singers, a gospel choir Sister Thea established. The choral group Johnson-Wilmot directed was invited to sing at a local function but learned an earlier invitation to the Hallelujah Singers had been withdrawn when organizers learned the singers were African-American.

Johnson-Wilmot said he called the organizers and said his group wouldn’t sing unless both groups were invited. In the end, he said, both groups sang and the event was a success.

Sister Charlene Smith of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration was Sister Thea’s friend for 35 years and is treasurer of the Thea Black Catholic Education Foundation. She also co-wrote the book “Thea’s Song.”

She said Sister Thea’s parents worried about her joining an all-white religious order in the North.

“Her dad said, ‘They’re not going to like you up there.’ She said, ‘I’ll make them like me,’” Sister Charlene recalled. “She spread joy even during her struggle with cancer. She was always spreading joy and happiness through her songs and her wisdom.”

‘Can you hear me, Church?’

When Sister Thea spoke to the U.S. bishops in June 1989, less than a year before her death from bone cancer, she was blunt. She told the bishops that people had told her black expressions of music and worship were “un-Catholic.”

She began by singing “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” a rebuke to the shepherds of a Church that often neglects its members of color. 

“Can you hear me, Church?” she asked. “Will you help me? Jesus told me the Church is my home.”

Sister Thea pointed out that the universal Church includes people of all races and cultures and she challenged the bishops to find ways to consult those of other cultures when making decisions. She told them they were obligated to better understand and integrate not just black Catholics, but people of all cultural backgrounds.

Catholic News Service reported that her remarks “brought tears to the eyes of many bishops and observers.” She also sang to them and, at the end, had them all link hands and join her in singing “We Shall Overcome.” They gave her a rousing ovation.