In Ages Past
The Joy of Sister Thea Bowman (1937-1990)
Her father begged her not to go. "They're not going to like you," Dr. Theon Bowman told his fifteen-year-old daughter Bertha. But she'd already made up her mind. It was the summer of 1953, and she was leaving Canton, Mississippi, for La Crosse, Wisconsin, where she was going to become a nun in a homogeneously white religious community. And, she added, "I'm going to make them love me."
She took the name Thea, meaning "of God." During her fifty-two years, she became one of Catholic America's most beloved figures: teacher, preacher, activist, musician, celebrator of African-American Catholicism. She inspired and enabled countless numbers to understand the true meaning of the word "Catholic." As Mike Leach writes, "Everybody wanted to be near Thea Bowman." Her joy was contagious.
She was tough, too. "I learned survival," she told an interviewer. "I'm from Mississippi." The granddaughter of slaves, she grew up in the Jim Crow South, where segregation was "an invulnerable tradition." But she learned important lessons at home. Her father, a doctor, was "really dedicated to trying to help people, and I grew up with that example." From her mother, a teacher, she learned to rise above hatred. "Returning insults," she learned, "only makes you small like they are."
When Thea was ten, the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration started teaching in Canton. Her parents enrolled her in their school, and soon she became interested in Catholicism. What attracted her most were the Sisters and how they put their faith into action. When she told her parents she wanted to become a Catholic, they initially disapproved, until it was clear that she had made up her mind.
She went by herself to the local parish, where she discovered that Catholics were as racist as everybody else. Sitting in an upper pew, she recalled, a kindly old lady suggested she move back. The lady herself wouldn't mind, she said, "but the others might not like it, and after all, they had been nice enough to buy a whole black pew just for the colored folks who came to their church to greet the Lord." Still Thea was undeterred. In fact, she decided to join the Sisters.
And she did. For nearly a decade she studied and taught in La Crosse, until the opportunity came to return home. In 1961, as Canton's first African-American nun, she taught at her alma mater before heading for doctoral studies at Catholic University. In 1966 she helped found a national organization for African-American nuns. She also began to reflect on her African heritage more closely:
My people have been a loving people, and I'm proud of that. We've been a people of song and story. We survived oppression, and we're still trying to survive, and still trying to keep on keeping on. I like being Black. I have friends who are white and brown and yellow and red, and all the colors in between. And I love my friends. I love to be with them. I love to share with them. But I l like being myself, and I thank God for making me my Black self.
Thea believed that when people rediscovered their own heritage, it enabled them to better appreciate other traditions. This was the real meaning of the word Catholic, "universal." As a Franciscan, one biographer notes, she was committed to being "a bridge of understanding and a peacemaker among the various cultures." In a 1980s interview she said: "I can introduce my Black friends to my Hispanic friends, to my Asian friends, to my Anglo friends. I can be the bridge over troubled water."
Dr. Pat McNamara is a published historian. He blogs about American Catholic History at McNamara's Blog.