Thea Bowman

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The Servant of God,
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, United States
Alma mater Viterbo University
Catholic University of America
Boston College
Occupation Roman Catholic Religious Sister and teacher

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 to her fellow African Americans. She became an evangelist among her people 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.[1][2] Bowman has been designated a Servant of God.


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.[3] She was raised in a Methodist home but, with her parents' permission, converted to the Roman Catholic faith at the age of nine,[1] and later joined the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration at La Crosse, Wisconsin. There she attended Viterbo University, run by her congregation.[4]

Bowman later attended The Catholic University of America for advanced studies, where she wrote her doctoral thesis on the American writer, William Faulkner.[5]


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.[3]

In his book, Eleven Modern Mystics, Victor M. Parachin, a meditation teacher, notes her impact upon Catholic liturgical music by providing an intellectual, spiritual, historical and cultural foundation for developing and legitimizing a distinct worship form for black Catholics. She 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.” [6]

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.[7]


After a career of 16 years in education, the Bishop of Jackson, Mississippi, invited Bowman to become a consultant for intercultural awareness for his diocese.[1] 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. 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 faith.

She appeared on the news show 60 Minutes with Mike Wallace.[1] She told Wallace that:

"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".[8]

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.[3]


Bowman died of cancer in 1990, aged 52, in Canton, Mississippi, and was buried with her parents in Memphis, Tennessee.[9]

Less than a week before her death it was announced by the University of Notre Dame that it would award Sister Thea the 1990 Laetare Medal. It was presented posthumously at the 1990 commencement exercises.[10]


  • 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


Sister Thea Bowman Foundation[edit]

The Sister Thea Bowman Black Catholic Educational Foundation was established as a legacy of Bowman.[11] In 1996, in partnership with the foundation, the Knights of Columbus Board of Directors authorized a four-year grant to support African-American students pursuing a Catholic college education.[12]

Cause for canonization[edit]

A cause for canonization has been opened for Bowman.[13][14] She has been designated a Servant of God.[14][15]

Institutions named after Bowman[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d "Sister Who Preached 'True Truths'". Retrieved 30 May 2017. 
  2. ^ "Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration "Sister Thea's Story"". Retrieved 30 May 2017. 
  3. ^ a b c "Sister Thea Bowman (1937 - 1990) - Boston College". Retrieved 30 May 2017. 
  4. ^ "SPEND AN "EVENING WITH THEA" ON APRIL 2". Viterbro University. Retrieved August 17, 2012. 
  5. ^ Daniel Lee. "BC Celebrates Inaugural Thea Bowman Legacy Day", The Gavel, March 31, 2015. "After receiving her Ph.D for her doctoral thesis on William Faulkner from the Catholic University of America, Sr. Thea first taught at an elementary school in La Crosse, Wis."
  6. ^ Parachin, Victor M. (2011). Eleven Modern Mystics, and the Secrets of a Happy, Holy Life. Pasadena, California: Hope Publishing House. 
  7. ^ Lead Me, Guide Me (2nd ed.). Chicago: GIA Publishing, Inc. 2012. 
  8. ^ "The Sister Thea Bowman Catholic School Online". Retrieved 30 May 2017. 
  9. ^ "Late Nun's Plea to Live Holy Week Still Resonates". American April 3, 2012. 
  10. ^ "Laetare Medal Recipients". University of Notre Dame. Retrieved August 17, 2012. 
  11. ^ "Sister Thea Bowman Foundation". Sister Thea Bowman Foundation. Retrieved August 17, 2012. 
  12. ^ "Sister Thea Bowman Foundation – Knights of Columbus Scholarships". Knights of Columbus. Retrieved August 17, 2012. 
  13. ^ Ervin Dyer. "Black nun being examined for sainthood". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 28, 2003.
  14. ^ a b Brian O’Neel. "African-American Sainthood Causes: Everyday Holiness". National Catholic Register, February 5, 2017. "Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman"
  15. ^ Robert Ellsberg. "Meet the Franciscan Saints". Franciscan Messenger, September 25, 2017. "there is Sister Thea Bowman (d. 1990), now proclaimed a Servant of God"
  16. ^ "Institute for Black Catholic Studies". Retrieved 30 May 2017. 
  17. ^ "Thea Bowman Center - Beacon of Hope". Retrieved 30 May 2017. 
  18. ^ "Thea Bowman House". Thea Bowman House. Retrieved 30 May 2017. 
  19. ^ "Biography". The Long Island Catholic. 2017. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Cepress, Celestine (ed.). Sister Thea Bowman, Shooting Star. La Crosse, Wisconsin, FSPA, 1999.
  • Smith, Charlene & John Feister. Thea's Song: The Life of Thea Bowman. Orbis Books, 2010.

External links[edit]