Renowned for her preaching, she took her message across the nation, speaking at church gatherings and conventions, making 100 speaking engagements a year until spreading cancer slowed her. Music was especially important to her. She would gather or bring a choir with her and often burst into song during her presentations.
In addition to her writings, her music also resulted in two recordings, “Sister Thea: Songs of My People” and “‘Round the Glory Manger: Christmas Spirituals.”
Before the vote, Kopacz told the assembly that requests that Bowman be considered for sainthood have been coming to his diocese since before he was installed in 2014.
“She courageously proclaimed that she would live until she died. And she did,” Kopacz said. “Her word, witness and song testified to her joy and holiness even as she faced the cross of terminal illness.”
He said Bowman believed African-American spirituality had much to offer the church, and now the need for that healing spirituality is critical.
“There is an urgency for her sanctity to be a leaven in our church and our society,” Kopacz said.
Sr. Marla Lang professed vows with the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in the same class as Bowman, and will attend the ceremony in Jackson.
Lang said entering religious life is jarring for anyone, and Bowman had the additional pressure of being in an all-White congregation in an all-White city, not to mention the cultural — and weather-related — shock of moving to Wisconsin from the Deep South. But if Bowman was troubled by her circumstances, Lang said, she didn’t show it.
“She had her spirituals — the music that was so beautiful. Most of us had been living with little or no contact with anyone of African descent, but her voice was so beautiful, it was just a very rich experience,” Lang said. “She was just a very graceful person to be around. But there must have been times when she must have felt like she was in a whole new area or culture.”
But Bowman’s words and her songs brought people together, she said.
“It just oozed out of her whole life. You give her a microphone and her spirit just moved into the hearts of those around her,” Lang said. “She just knew how to let her energy flow. … Her warmth just kindled people’s hearts.”
At the order’s chapter in 1980, Bowman was asked to sing the Gospel at the final liturgy, Lang said.
“I don’t think I’ll ever forget that proclamation of the Gospel,” she said. “There must have been four or five hundred people there, and she just rang it out. She just called us to live out the Gospel not only with great joy, but with great intent and spirit.”
Sr. Mary Ann Gschwind was Bowman’s roommate during their first summer studying at Catholic University in 1966. Gschwind is the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration’s archivist and has been sworn in as a member of the historical commission for Bowman’s cause.
Even at Catholic University, Bowman was unique, Gschwind said: There were African-American sisters on campus, but they were all in African-American congregations. Since the sisters still wore habits, it was easy to see that Bowman was from a White congregation.
“It took a lot of nerve for her to join our community,” Gschwind said. “I don’t think I could have done it if the situation were reversed.”
And yet Bowman inspired and moved people everywhere she went.
“She taught at the school here in La Crosse, and of course it was all White, but she was still just a phenomenon,” Gschwind said. “They have very precious memories of her.”