Sister Thea Bowman
‘To live until I die.’
During Black History Month, the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon are recognizing the global contributions of Black men and women. The Sisters encourage us to reflect on their invaluable contributions to peace, religion, philanthropy, science and the advancement of human-kind.
Today we reflect on the amazing story of Sister Thea Bowman – the great cultural advocate who pledged to ‘Live until I die.’
Born in Yazoo, MS in 1937, Bertha Bowman (Sister Thea) was the granddaughter of a slave and grew up in a town where her father, a doctor, was not allowed to practice medicine at the local hospital. Growing up in the midst of these racial prejudices, Sister Thea found joy celebrating her culture, spirituality, music, stories and traditions.
Inspired by her teachers, the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, Sister Thea converted to Catholicism and entered their community at 15. She was the first Black member of the community.
Sister Thea’s fellow Sisters instantly noticed her intelligence, voice talent, dedication and exuberant joy. During her ministry she became a noted liturgist, scholar, evangelist and speaker. Despite many obstacles due to racism, her joy and desire for all races and faiths to know God’s love enabled her to bring diverse and often fractured groups of people together – many times through music.
Teaching was always an important part of Sr. Thea’s life. She taught elementary, secondary and college level students and also served as consultant for intercultural awareness for the Diocese of Jackson, MS.
One of Sister Thea’s most influential gifts was her joy. She had the ability to rejoice in God in every situation. Even after being diagnosed with cancer in 1984. She endured several painful treatments during the next six years while continuing to inspire others to transform the Church’s legacy of segregation and racism into the one Body of Christ.
Sister Thea’s desire ‘to live until I die’ was most evident during her presentation at the 1989 U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ November 198 Plenary Assembly. During the assembly, she urged the Bishops to evangelize to Black communities and to support Catholic schools in Black communities. Inspired by her dedication and words they all joined together in singing “We Shall Overcome.”
Sister Thea died of cancer on March 30, 1990. She was only 52 years old. She was awarded an honorary doctorate from Boston College in 1989 and was the first person to receive the Laetare Medal from Notre Dame University posthumously, in 1990.
Today, there are Catholic schools and an education foundation to support needy students who attend Catholic universities, thanks to Sister Thea’s ministry. She also helped establish housing units and a health clinic for elderly and marginalized people.
Sister Thea’s legacy is an example of a faith-filled desire to share God’s love.
In 2018, the U.S. Bishops voted unanimously to endorse Sister Thea’s cause for sainthood. Visit, fspa.org to learn more about the cause for her canonization.
Photo credit: https://www.sistertheabowman.com/media/photos/