In Ages Past
The Joy of Sister Thea Bowman (1937-1990)
After receiving her doctorate in English (her dissertation was on fellow Mississippian William Faulkner), Thea taught college for several years until the opportunity came to return home. Concerned about her parents' health, she was staying with them when Bishop John Brunini asked her to head the Jackson Diocese's Office of Intercultural Affairs. As musician, author, and speaker, she took a leading role in the Black Catholic community. She had the special gift of being able to meet people on their own terms.
Nineteen-eighty-four proved to be an especially tough year for Thea, as both her parents died and she herself was diagnosed with breast cancer. "Let me live until I die!" was her motto. She continued to speak (and sing) nationwide. Perhaps the climax of her career came in 1989, when she addressed the American Bishops from her wheelchair. Beginning with a song, she challenged her "brother bishops" to live up to their own words and lead others to rediscover what it means to be "truly Catholic."
On a Friday morning, March 30, 1990, Sister Thea Bowman died peacefully in her childhood home. Viterbo College in La Crosse, where she taught, rang its bells fifty-two times for each year of her life. Thea's gift for bringing people together was never more evident than at her funeral Mass. Assessing her own legacy, she had written:
I think the difference between me and some people is that I'm content to do my little bit. Sometimes people think they have to do big things in order to make change. But if each one would light a candle we'd have a tremendous light.
"I can't preach in the church," Thea had noted; so she preached on the streets, in the neighborhood, the home, the family. While Catholics celebrated their respective gifts, they also had a responsibility to bridge differences. "I don't think it starts in church," she said, but "when we can love one another, when we become friends. Then we can walk hand in hand into the house of the Lord and pray together." Not trying to bridge those gaps, she said, was "sacrilege."
Thea Bowman, builder of bridges, bridger of gaps, channel of God's peace, pray for us!
Dr. Pat McNamara is a published historian. He blogs about American Catholic History at McNamara's Blog.