Sister Thea Bowman, F.S.P.A., an evangelist, educator, artist, and advocate for social justice, drew on her studies at The Catholic University of America to mesmerize audiences with orations on the Black Catholic experience.
She made them taste the pain of injustice and the glory of faith as she invited them into a vision of God’s love.
"We unite ourselves with Christ’s redemptive work when we reconcile, when we make peace, when we share the good news that God is in our lives, when we reflect to our brothers and sisters God’s healing, God’s forgiveness, God’s unconditional love,” she wrote shortly before her death.
In 2018 the Vatican declared her a Servant of God, the first step toward sainthood.
“I can change things. I can make things happen,”she said. “I know that God is using me in ways beyond my comprehension,” saying on another occasion, “We each have a light and God didn’t give us that light to sit on it.”
Born in 1937, she was the only child of an older, professional couple in Canton, Miss., and the grandchild of slaves. She absorbed the stories, song, dance, dialect, and traditions of those who had held to faith, hope, love, and dignity in the face of denigration and brutality.
Her Methodist parents sent her to a Catholic school. There the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration so inspired her that she became Catholic at age 10. At 15, she became the only Black member of their order.
Sister Bowman arrived at Catholic University around 1968 as a graduate student in English. She established Catholic University’s first course on Black literature and used her operatic singing voice to shape presentations on African-American life and faith.
“While studying literary theory, methodology and criticism at Catholic University I began to realize the extent to which music encodes values, history and faith of my people,” she told CUA Magazine.
Dressed in a dashiki, she sang spirituals and engaged audiences in call-and-response, speaking in a cadence that bordered on chant. For academic audiences, she later explained each element, from her rhetorical style to hand gestures.
Sister Bowman wrote her 1972 doctoral dissertation on St. Thomas More’s A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation. More wrote it in 1534 while awaiting execution in the Tower of London for refusing to renounce allegiance to the pope as the head of the worldwide Church. He warned Catholics that they faced difficult choices with eternal consequences.
Sister Bowman analyzed his use of pathos — appeal to sympathetic emotions — to produce action. She wrote of his “conscious desire to quicken imaginations, stir affections, and inflame hearts; the indefatigable endeavor to replace ungodly emotions by their opposites and to stir wills by confronting the emotions with their proper objects.”
That characterized her future ministry as an educator, advocate and evangelist. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1984, she vowed to “live until I die.”
On June 17, 1989, her bones too brittle for her to rise from her wheelchair, she addressed the Catholic bishops of the United States in a tour de force that epitomized all she had become since her days at Catholic University.
“How does it feel to be Black in Church and society? I’m gonna tell you about what it’s like in the Church,” she declared. Then she burst into the song “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”
“A pilgrim on a journey looking for a home. And Jesus told me the Church is my home,” she continued. “Bishops, my brothers, please help me to get home.”
When she concluded, the 250 bishops were standing with arms linked, singing “We Shall Overcome.” Some had tears in their eyes.
She died nine months later, age 52, on March 30, 1990. Her influence at the University is memorialized through the Sister Thea Bowman Lecture Series on Social Justice and the work of the Sister Thea Bowman Committee.