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Trailblazing Black Nun Sister Thea Bowman on Path to Possible Sainthood

It may have been growing up in Canton that drove her to bring people together: The small town was so extremely segregated that even in the 1970s and ’80s, there were stores African-Americans knew they were not welcome in. When Gschwind and her mother visited Bowman in Canton, her mother was so charmed by Dr. Bowman that she kissed his cheek when saying goodbye. Thea Bowman almost burst into tears.

“She said, ‘No White woman has ever kissed my Black father,’ ” Gschwind said.

The investigation into Bowman’s life will have no shortage of material to examine. The congregation’s archives contain three file drawers of Bowman’s speeches — most of which she handwrote on scrap paper to avoid waste — and 20 bankers boxes of documents, Gschwind said. There are also many artifacts, such as Bowman’s wheelchair and the academic hoods she received with each of her many honorary degrees.

Dan Johnson-Wilmot was a colleague of Bowman’s at Viterbo in the 1970s, where he was a professor in the music department and she taught English and studied voice.

“Anyone who went to her presentations, I don’t think she ever had one where she didn’t sing,” Johnson-Wilmot said. “She had an uncanny gift — it didn’t matter who was there, she could weave a song into just about any kind of presentation she was giving, and people were just struck when she began singing because it was always from her heart and soul.”

Johnson-Wilmot said the two became fast friends after an incident that started out ugly but became just another sign of how Bowman could bring people together.

There were several African-American students from Bowman’s hometown of Canton at Viterbo who formed the core of a gospel choir Bowman established called the Hallelujah Singers. The choral group Johnson-Wilmot directed was invited to sing at a local function, but learned an earlier invitation to the Hallelujah Singers had been withdrawn when organizers found out the singers were African-American.

Johnson-Wilmot said he called the organizers and said his group wouldn’t sing unless both groups were invited. In the end, he said, both groups sang and the event was a success.

“[Bowman] asked me, ‘Why did you do that?’ She knew I was this White boy from Duluth, Minnesota, with very little contact with African-Americans,” Johnson-Wilmot said. “But regardless of your background, you can feel the presence of discrimination, and I wasn’t going to allow it.”

That was the beginning of a deep affection, he said.

“She was an only child, and one day she told me, ‘I decided you’re going to be my brother,’ and she became my big sister,” Johnson-Wilmot said. “I have so many letters from her that are addressed like that to me.”

Sr. Charlene Smith of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration was a friend of Bowman’s for 35 years, is treasurer of the Thea Bowman Black Catholic Education Foundation, and co-authored a book about her, Thea’s Song.

“I always say my claim to fame is I was a friend to Sister Thea for 35 years,” Smith said. “She was a star and I was in orbit around her.”

Smith said Bowman’s parents worried about her joining an all-White religious order in the North.

“Her dad said, ‘They’re not going to like you up there.’ She said, ‘I’ll make them like me,’ ” Smith said. “She spread joy even during her struggle with cancer. She was always spreading joy and happiness through her songs and her wisdom.”

Smith said Bowman’s joy came out even when she was seriously ill.

“She didn’t know how to not sing. She sang all day long; she sang in the night,” Smith said.

In 1989, Bowman traveled back to La Crosse for a symposium, but was so sick Smith was certain she would be unable to speak at the event. “As soon as people knew she was in town, they just streamed into the convent to see her,” Smith said.

At the symposium, “they rolled her out in her wheelchair and she absolutely electrified the whole audience there,” Smith said.

When Bowman spoke at the U.S. bishops’ meeting in June 1989, less than a year before her death from bone cancer, she was blunt. She told the bishops that people had told her Black expressions of music and worship were “un-Catholic.”

She began her presentation by singing “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” a rebuke to the shepherds of a church that often neglects its members of color. “Can you hear me, church?” she asked. “Will you help me? Jesus told me the church is my home.”

Bowman pointed out that the universal church includes people of all races and cultures and she challenged the bishops to find ways to consult those of other cultures when making decisions. She told them they were obligated to better understand and integrate not just Black Catholics, but people of all cultural backgrounds.

Catholic News Service reported that her remarks “brought tears to the eyes of many bishops and observers.” She also sang to them and, at the end, had them all link hands and join her in singing “We Shall Overcome.” They gave her a rousing standing ovation.

Gschwind said Bowman challenging the bishops and having them embrace her in response is known to many in the community as “her first miracle.”

https://youtu.be/l2S0tD6qFIA

 

The legacy of Bowman and her generation is one of both condemnation and redemption, said Shannen Dee Williams, a history professor at Villanova University who is working on a book about Black Catholic sisters.

“Along with the possible canonizations of Servant of God Mother Mary Lange and Venerable Henriette Delille, the formal opening of Sister Thea Bowman’s cause for canonization will signify that the church is ready to embrace the story of the real sister act in the United States — the story of how generations of devout Black Catholic women and girls fought against racial segregation and exclusion in their White-dominated church in order to answer God’s calls on their lives and minister as women religious,” Williams wrote in an email to Global Sisters Report.

“Sister Thea 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. Her story and lived experiences as the first and only (African-American) Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration remind us that the church was never an innocent bystander in the story of American racism.”

Williams said that while those in the battle for civil rights often had the protection of the public eye to shame opponents, those desegregating White Catholic institutes did not — which makes their fight that much more inspiring.

But that fight also deeply wounded many.

“Sister Thea’s refusal to abandon her call to religious life or succumb to bitterness in the face of unholy discrimination did not come without cost,” Williams wrote. “She is one of several pioneering Black sisters in White congregations who died young — in their forties and fifties due to stressed-related diseases like cancer.”

Smith said Bowman must be “getting a big kick” out of the canonization process.

“She said, ‘I just always try to let my little light shine,'” Smith said. “And she did.”

Editor’s note: This article was first published November 28, 2018, by Global Sisters Report.


Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. Follow him on Twitter @DanStockman or on Facebook. Information from Catholic News Service was used in this report.

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Faithfully Magazine is a fresh, bold and exciting news and culture publication that covers issues, conversations and events impacting Christian communities of color.

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