Let it play in the background as you study and immerse yourself in this topic!
Sister Thea Bowman was a Catholic leader, evangelist, and teacher who has made such significant contributions to the ministry of the Catholic Church, that she is being considered for Sainthood. Thea Bowman was born Bertha Elizabeth Bowman on December 29, 1937, in Yazoo City, Mississippi. Her mother, Mary Esther (Coleman) was a teacher, and her father, Theon Edward was a physician and raised Bowman in a Methodist home.
Bowman was just nine when she asked her parents to convert to Catholicism. They did and she joined the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in La Crosse, Wisconsin when she was fifteen. Bowman was the only black sister in the order. She was given the name Sister Mary Thea, in honor of the Blessed Mother, and her father, Theon.
At the order, Bowman trained to become a teacher. After graduation, she earned her B.A. in English, Speech and Drama in 1965 from nearby Viterbo University, her M.A. in English in 1969 from The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., and her PhD in English Language Literature and Linguistics in 1972 from Xavier University, New Orleans, Louisiana. Bowman spent her career teaching, giving public speeches and lectures, short courses and workshops. Often through song, dance, stories and poetry, Bowman spread her message of joy, freedom and pride of her culture.
As a speaker, Bowman traveled across the nation, as well as to Hawaii, the Virgin Islands, Canada, and Kenya. She gave more than 100 public appearances per year that included workshops, recitals, and presentations. She was an elementary teacher at Blessed Sacrament School in La Crosse, a high school teacher at Holy Child High School in Canton, Mississippi, and a professor at all of her alma maters. Bowman was responsible for creating the first Black Catholics course at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. and established the Black Catholic Institute. In 1978, Bowman asked the order if she could return home to Canton to care for her aging parents. She became a consultant for intercultural awareness for the ruling Bishop of Jackson, Mississippi.
In 1984, the year both of Bowman’s parents died, she was diagnosed with cancer. Through her treatment, Bowman continued to keep a rigorous schedule of engagements, eventually traveling by wheelchair. One of her last public speeches was in June of 1989, addressing the U.S. Bishops at their annual meeting held at Seton Hall University, East Orange, New Jersey. The same year, Bowman received an honorary Doctor of Religion from Boston College, becoming the first African American to receive the honor from that institution.
On March 30, 1990, Sister Thea Bowman died peacefully of cancer in her childhood home in Canton, at the age of 52. Across the nation, there are books, cards, articles, visual media presentations, a stage play, works of art, statues, stained glass windows, and almost twenty institutions that bear Bowman’s name. Currently there are eleven African American Saints in the Catholic diocese. Bowman is now the first African American from the United States on the path to Sainthood. There are twelve stages to being martyred. In 2018, Bowman was designated a Servant of God, the eleventh step in the process of becoming a Saint.
Do you find this information helpful? A small donation would help us keep this available to all. Forego a bottle of soda and donate its cost to us for the information you just learned, and feel good about helping to make it available to everyone.
BlackPast.org is a 501(c)(3) non-profit and our EIN is 26-1625373. Your donation is fully tax-deductible.
Rachel Wood and Veronica McGraw, “Stand Together”: Sister Thea, Our Saint in the Making,” English.catholic.edu, February 2019 Newsletter, https://english.catholic.edu/about-us/newsletter/february-2019-newsletter/article-sr-thea.html; Dan Stockman, “Sister Theam Bowman takes one step further toward canonization with bishops vote,” Ncronline.com, November 14, 2018, https://www.ncronline.org/preview/sr-thea-bowman-takes-step-further-toward-canonization-bishops-vote