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Sister Thea Bowman - 'What does it mean to be Black and Catholic?'

Sister Thea Bowman, FSPA. Credit: Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.

Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman died on March 30, 1990 — 32 years ago today.

An evangelist, a religious sister, and a witness to the role of Black Catholics in the Church, Bowman was well-known in life, and has been celebrated among many American Catholics in the decades since she died of cancer at age 52.

She is especially remembered for an address she gave to the U.S. bishops’ conference in 1989. In 2018, the USCCB expressed support for her cause for canonization, which is now being investigated in the Diocese of Jackson, Mississippi

Don’t know much about Sr. Thea? The Pillar brings you a few places to start.

‘The Amazing Light’

“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.” - Sister Thea Bowman


‘Go tell it on the mountain’

Sister Thea was well-known for her beautiful singing voice. Really, it’s great. Check it out:

Listen to her whole album here.

Sister’s sisters

Bowman was a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, the religious order she joined in 1953.

In a 2018 profile, some of her sisters remembered religious life with Sr. Bowman:

Sister Rochelle Potaracke, FSPA, was a young sister at the time that Thea joined the convent in 1953.

[Potaracke] remembers Thea as a happy and energetic young postulant, who stuck out in the state of Wisconsin, where very few black people lived at the time. Her blackness even made news in the local Catholic paper that summer: “Negro Aspirant” read the headline.

“When I was growing up I never saw a black person, that was in the early ’40s, and that’s the same for many areas I know. But I think we accepted (Thea) very well. We loved her dearly, she fit right in with all of us, she always had her singing and her enthusiasm,” Potoracke said.

“But it must have been terribly hard for her. I think of it now, I didn’t think of it then. I didn’t think ‘Oh, the poor dear, but I think now it had to be a challenge for her, she was in a whole new almost different country so to speak.”

Read more here.

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‘Like a shooting star…into the arms of God’

A Nov. 18, 2018 Mass at the Cathedral of St. Peter in Jackson, Mississippi opened the cause for canonization of Sr. Thea Bowman.

Bishop Joseph Kopacz told the congregation that “throughout her life, the gift [of faith] she received she gave as a gift until her last breath.”

“Sister Thea spoke about her last remaining years, after knowing she had a very serious terminal illness, that she would go like a shooting start into the firmament — into the arms of God.”

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‘Sr. Thea left a mark on us’

Writer Karianna Frey remembers Bowman:

“Sr. Thea left a mark on us. A mark that reminds us that God loves us for who we are because we are His. She reminds us that we are Catholic not because of what we do, but because of whose blood has purchased our redemption. She encourages us to be the tabernacles that we become through the Eucharist. When we go out into the world we are Christ-bearers and have the opportunity to show the world what it means to be a Christian.”

Read the rest here.


‘We shall overcome’

Servant of God Sr. Thea Bowman speaks to the USCCB in 1989. Credit: USCCB/youtube.

Bowman is best remembered for her 1989 address to the USCCB on Black Catholic spirituality.

A pilgrim in the journey looking for home. And Jesus told me that the Church is my home. And Jesus told me that heaven is my home and I have here no lasting city. Cardinals, archbishops, bishops – my brothers — or Church – please help me to get home.

What does it mean to be Black and Catholic? It means that I come to my Church fully functioning. That doesn’t frighten you, does it? I come to my Church fully functioning. I bring myself; my Black self, all that I am, all that I have, all that I hope to become. I bring my whole history, my traditions, my experience, my culture, my African-American song and dance and gesture and movement and teaching and preaching and healing and responsibility - as gifts to the Church.

I bring a spirituality that our Black-American bishops told us (they just told us what everybody who knew, knew), that spirituality is contemplative and biblical and holistic, bringing to religion a totality of mind and imagination, of memory, of feeling and passion, and emotion and intensity. A faith that is embodied incarnate praise - a spirituality that knows how to find joy even in the time of sorrow – that steps out on faith that leans on the Lord. A spirituality that is commoner – that tries to walk and talk and work and pray and play together. Even when we’re busy, we’re busy around and we want to be find Him, where we want to reach out and touch Him. Where we can talk to Him. Don’t be too busy y’all. A spirituality that in the middle of your Mass or in the middle of your sermon we just might have to shout out and say “Amen,” “Hallelujah,” “Thank you Jesus!”

Watch the whole thing here:

At the conclusion of her speech, she urged the bishops to join her in singing the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.”

“Bishops, I’m going to ask you to do something. Cross your right hand over your left hand. Come on, bishops, you’ve got to move together to do that!”

Watch the bishops sing with Sr. Bowman here:

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