Thea Bowman

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Thea Bowman
Thea Bowman.jpg
Born Bertha Bowman
December 29, 1937
Yazoo City, Mississippi, United States
Died March 30, 1990(1990-03-30) (aged 52)
Canton, Mississippi, USA
Alma mater Viterbo University
Catholic University of America
Occupation Roman Catholic religious sister and teacher
Title The Servant of God
Awards Honorary PhD from Boston College

Sister Thea Bowman (December 29, 1937 – March 30, 1990) was a Roman Catholic religious sister, teacher, and scholar who made a major contribution to the ministry of the Catholic Church toward her fellow African Americans. She became an evangelist among her people, assisted in the production of an African American Catholic hymnal, and was a popular speaker on faith and spirituality in her final years. She helped found the National Black Sisters Conference to provide support for African-American women in Catholic religious institutes. Bowman has been designated a Servant of God.[1]


Early life[edit]

She was born Bertha Bowman in Yazoo City, Mississippi, in 1937. Her grandfather had been born a slave but her father was a physician and her mother a teacher. She was raised in a Methodist home but, with her parents' permission, converted to the Roman Catholic faith at the age of nine and later joined the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration at La Crosse, Wisconsin. There she attended Viterbo University, run by her congregation.[2]

Bowman later attended The Catholic University of America for advanced studies, where she wrote her doctoral thesis on the American writer William Faulkner.[3]


Bowman taught at an elementary school in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and then at a high school in Canton, Mississippi. She later taught at her alma maters, Viterbo College in La Crosse and the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., as well as at Xavier University in New Orleans, Louisiana.[2]

In his book, Eleven Modern Mystics, Victor M. Parachin, a meditation teacher, notes her impact upon Catholic liturgical music of providing an intellectual, spiritual, historical, and cultural foundation for developing and legitimizing a distinct worship form for Black Catholics. Bowman had explained: “When we understand our history and culture, then we can develop the ritual, the music and the devotional expression that satisfy us in the Church.” [4]

Bowman became instrumental in the publication in 1987 of a new Catholic hymnal, Lead Me, Guide Me: The African American Catholic Hymnal, the first such work directed to the Black community. James P. Lyke, Auxiliary Bishop of Cleveland (also an African-American), coordinated the hymnal project, saying it was born of the needs and aspirations of Black Catholics. Bowman was actively involved in helping select hymns to be included. The hymnal includes an essay by her titled “The Gift of African American Sacred Song.” In it she says “Black sacred song is soulful song” and then describes it these five ways:

  1. holistic: challenging the full engagement of mind, imagination, memory, feeling, emotion, voice, and body;
  2. participatory: inviting the worshiping community to join in contemplation, in celebration and in prayer;
  3. real: celebrating the immediate concrete reality of the worshiping community – grief or separation, struggle or oppression, determination or joy – bringing that reality to prayer within the community of believers;
  4. spirit-filled: energetic, engrossing, intense;
  5. life-giving: refreshing, encouraging, consoling, invigorating, sustaining.[5]


After she had spent 16 years in education, the Bishop of Jackson, Mississippi, invited Bowman to become a consultant for intercultural awareness for his diocese. She then became more directly involved with ministry to her fellow African-Americans. She began to give inspirational talks to Black congregations and found a tremendous response by the people to whom she spoke. She brought her "ministry of joy" to far-ranging audiences, from Nigeria and Kenya to Canada, from the Virgin Islands to Hawaii, New York, and California.[2] She called on Catholics to celebrate their differences and to retain their cultures, but to reflect their joy at being one in Christ, a joy which her audiences found her exhibiting to a remarkable degree, including with those of other faiths.[6] In his book on different avenues toward improving race relations,[7] Christopher Pramuk, author of Hope Sings, So Beautiful: Graced Encounters Across the Color Line, wrote:

Arguably no person in recent memory did more to resist and transform the sad legacy of segregation and racism in the Catholic Church than Thea Bowman ... who inspired millions with her singing and message of God’s love for all races and faiths. Sister Thea awakened a sense of fellowship in people both within and well beyond the Catholic world, first and foremost through her charismatic presence.[8]

Even after she developed cancer and her health began a steady decline, she continued to speak to religious groups, becoming a model of hope and joy in the faith. During an appearance on the show 60 Minutes with Mike Wallace, she prodded him into saying "Black is beautiful"[6] and she said:

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.

In 1989, shortly before her death, in recognition of her contributions to the service of the Church, she was awarded an honorary Doctorate in Religion by Boston College in Massachusetts.[2]


Immediately before her death, Bowman spoke to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops from her wheelchair, and the bishops "powerfully and visibly moved, applauded her. When she finished they stood linking arms and singing as Thea led them in the spiritual, 'We Shall Overcome'.”[9] Harry Belafonte met her in Mississippi in 1989 hoping to do a film on her life.[10] Less than a week before her death, the University of Notre Dame announced that it would award Sister Thea the 1990 Laetare Medal. It was presented posthumously at the 1990 commencement exercises.[11] She died of cancer on March 30, 1990, aged 52, in Canton, Mississippi, and was buried with her parents in Memphis, Tennessee.[12] The 25th anniversary of her death brought forth, again, numerous tributes.[13][14]


  • Bowman, Thea. Families, Black and Catholic, Catholic and Black. Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference. Commission on Marriage and Family Life, 1985.
  • Bowman, Thea and Maurice J. Nutt. Thea Bowman: In My Own Words. Liguori, Mo.: Liguori Publications, 2009. ISBN 978-0-7648-1782-3. index of Bowman's speeches, writings, and interviews, with a brief biographical sketch and epilogue


Thea Bowman Ahana and Intercultural Center[edit]

Boston College instituted the Thea Bowman Ahana and Intercultural Center, which in 2015 inaugurated an annual Thea Bowman Legacy Day. At the inaugural event of the legacy day, the keynote speaker mentioned how Bowman had stressed the importance of education for Blacks, and how she had legitimized a distinct form of worship for Black Catholics.[3]

Sister Thea Bowman Foundation[edit]

The Sister Thea Bowman Black Catholic Educational Foundation was established as a legacy of Bowman to raise scholarship money for Blacks, an endeavor Bowman saw as key to raising up the Black people.[15] She conceived of the foundation as early as 1984 and articulated its mission for the students: “Walk with us. Don’t walk behind us and don’t walk in front of us; walk with us.”[16] By 2015 it had put more than 150 African American students through college.[17]

Cause for canonization[edit]

A cause for canonization has been opened for Bowman. She has been designated a Servant of God.[18][19]

Institutions named after Bowman[edit]


  1. ^ "African-American Sainthood Causes: Everyday Holiness". National Catholic Register. Retrieved 2017-12-23. 
  2. ^ a b c d "Sister Thea Bowman (1937 - 1990) - Boston College". Retrieved 30 May 2017. 
  3. ^ a b c Daniel Lee. "BC Celebrates Inaugural Thea Bowman Legacy Day", The Gavel, March 31, 2015.
  4. ^ Parachin, Victor M. (2011). Eleven Modern Mystics, and the Secrets of a Happy, Holy Life. Pasadena, California: Hope Publishing House. 
  5. ^ Lead Me, Guide Me (2nd ed.). Chicago: GIA Publishing, Inc. 2012. 
  6. ^ a b "Sister Thea Bowman (1937-1990): From April 28, 1990". America Magazine. 1990-04-28. Retrieved 2017-12-23. 
  7. ^ Fulkerson, Mary McClintock (2015-10-01). "Christopher Pramuk, Hope Sings, So Beautiful: Graced Encounters across the Color Line". The Journal of Religion. 95 (4): 579–580. doi:10.1086/682318. ISSN 0022-4189. 
  8. ^ "To Live Fully: The witness of Sister Thea Bowman". America Magazine. 2014-06-24. Retrieved 2017-12-23. 
  9. ^ Company, Our Sunday Visitor Catholic Publishing. "Thea Bowman: Soulful Mystic". Our Sunday Visitor Catholic Publishing Company. Retrieved 2017-12-23. 
  10. ^ "Black nun being examined for sainthood". Retrieved 2017-12-23. 
  11. ^ "Laetare Medal Recipients". University of Notre Dame. Retrieved August 17, 2012. 
  12. ^ "Talbot School of Theology ›". Retrieved 2017-12-23. 
  13. ^ "Sister Thea Bowman 25 death anniversary Archives - Mississippi Catholic". Mississippi Catholic. Retrieved 2017-12-23. 
  14. ^ "The Life and Legacy of Sister Thea Bowman". Wisconsin Public Radio. 2015-02-26. Retrieved 2017-12-23. 
  15. ^ "Sister Thea Bowman Foundation". Retrieved 2017-12-23. 
  16. ^ "History – Sister Thea Bowman Foundation". Retrieved 2017-12-23. 
  17. ^ "Good news for one another: The legacy of Sr. Thea Bowman". Global Sisters Report. 2015-04-30. Retrieved 2017-12-23. 
  18. ^ Brian O’Neel. "African-American Sainthood Causes: Everyday Holiness". National Catholic Register, February 5, 2017. "Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman"
  19. ^ Robert Ellsberg. "Meet the Franciscan Saints". Franciscan Messenger, September 25, 2017. "there is Sister Thea Bowman (d. 1990), now proclaimed a Servant of God"
  20. ^ "Thea Bowman Center - Beacon of Hope". Retrieved 30 May 2017. 
  21. ^ "Thea Bowman Center Intergenerational Garden | ioby". Retrieved 2017-12-23. 
  22. ^ "Advantage Health Center to offer dental service at its Thea Bowman clinic in Detroit". Crain's Detroit Business. 2017-07-28. Retrieved 2017-12-23. 
  23. ^ "Thea Bowman House". Thea Bowman House. Retrieved 30 May 2017. 
  24. ^ "USNEWS on Leadership Academy". Retrieved 23 December 2017. 
  25. ^ "Thea Bowman Residence in Amityville, New York". Affordable Housing Online. Retrieved 2017-12-23. 
  26. ^ "Thea Bowman Spirituality Center, St. Moses the Black Priory in Raymond, Mississippi". Retrieved 2017-12-23. 
  27. ^ "Thea Bowman Women's Center | St. Francis Inn Ministries". Retrieved 2017-12-23. 
  28. ^ "Sister Thea Bowman Academy, Wilkinsburg". Retrieved 2017-12-23. 
  29. ^ "Sister Thea Bowman Catholic School". Retrieved 2017-12-23. 
  30. ^ "Biography". The Long Island Catholic. 2017. 
  31. ^ "Sister Thea Bowman Grade School". Retrieved 2017-12-23. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Cepress, Celestine (ed.). Sister Thea Bowman, Shooting Star. La Crosse, Wisconsin, FSPA, 1999.
  • Nutt, Maurice J. Thea Bowman: In My Own Words. Liguori, Missouri: Liguori, 2105.
  • Smith, Charlene & John Feister. Thea's Song: The Life of Thea Bowman. Orbis Books, 2010.

External links[edit]