Trailblazing Black Nun Sister Thea Bowman on Path to Possible Sainthood

Bowman was a member of the generation of Black Catholic women and girls who desegregated the nation’s historically White sisterhoods after World War II.

Sister Thea Bowman Faithfully Magazine
Sister Thea Bowman appears at a Walsh University event on September 18, 1989. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/KatieHutchison)

By Dan Stockman, Global Sisters Report

Servant of God Sr. Thea Bowman, a trailblazing African-American sister who was the first Black sister in her White congregation, the first Black woman to address the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and an inspiration to thousands of people with her words and songs, is another step further toward sainthood.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted Nov. 14 at their general assembly in Baltimore to advance Bowman’s cause, opening the way for a diocesan commission to determine whether she lived a life of “extraordinary and heroic virtue.”

Bowman, who was a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, was declared a servant of God on May 15, when her home Diocese of Jackson, Mississippi, requested the bishops endorse opening her cause for sainthood. On Nov. 18, in a ceremony scheduled before Wednesday’s vote even took place, Jackson Bishop Joseph Kopacz will read the edict opening the investigation, followed by a special Mass. Bowman died of cancer on March 30, 1990, at age 52.

Bowman will be declared venerable, worthy of imitation by the faithful, if the tribunal finds in Bowman’s favor and the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome endorses the decision.

“Sister Thea always encouraged people to stand up for their rights and she continues to inspire,” said Sr. Eileen McKenzie, Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration president, in an emailed statement. “As FSPA and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious pledge to unveil white privilege and purge the destructive effects of racism, we recognize Sister Thea’s cause to sainthood serves as a sign of the times. We believe she’d find hope that in this canonization process, there’s continued movement toward racial equity.”

McKenzie said the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration will follow the Jackson Diocese’s lead as the process moves forward, and that the community’s archives are open to commission officials.

There was a buzz in the motherhouse before and after the vote, McKenzie said.

“We’re looking around with eyes wide, saying, where is this going?” McKenzie told GSR in a phone interview. “It’s a fascinating time, and we’re having lots of conversations about how providential this moment is.

McKenzie said Bowman in 1989 challenged the bishops on racism, while today the bishops are themselves again taking up the cause with a pastoral letter on racism, even as they are being challenged by the sex abuse crisis in the church. Bowman’s message of reconciliation is again needed, she said.

“We’re just kind of swimming in this understanding that there’s something happening with the Spirit in the world,” McKenzie said in the interview. “She was singing to them her pain, but she had a way of engaging them in the healing.”

Born Bertha Bowman on Dec. 29, 1937, in Yazoo City, Mississippi, she was the daughter of a doctor and a teacher. She attended Holy Child Jesus School in Canton, about 38 miles from her birthplace, run by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. At age 8, she decided she wanted to become a Catholic. She knew by her early teenage years that she was called to consecrated life.

In the 1950s, she studied at Viterbo College in La Crosse, Wisconsin, where the order is based, while preparing to enter the convent. She was the first African-American member of the community, and one of very few African-Americans in La Crosse at the time. She went on to study at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. When she eventually returned to Canton in 1979 to care for her elderly parents, she continued to teach and inspire the people in her community.

Bowman led the Jackson Diocese’s Office of Intercultural Awareness, taught at several Catholic high schools and colleges, and was a faculty member of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans.


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