This is the latest installment of the series, “The genius of my sister.” Read other articles in the series to learn more about Catholic women throughout history and how they can inspire us today.
“Holy women are an incarnation of the feminine ideal; they are also a model for all Christians” (Mulieris Dignitatem, No. 27).
Do differences unite us or divide us? When we encounter situations and ideas that are new or unfamiliar, do we respond with openness and curiosity, or are we guarded, uncomfortable and dismissive? These are important questions to ask ourselves, questions Sister Thea Bowman challenged the people she encountered to answer.
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A few weeks before her death, Sister Thea Bowman wrote some of her final words in an article titled “Let Us Resolve to Make This Week a Holy One”: “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.” Published in a Jackson, Mississippi, newspaper, these words encompass the mission to which Sister Thea dedicated her life to — a mission rooted in the Gospel, one that sought to celebrate diversity and heal wounds inflicted by racism.
Those wounds were close to Sister Thea’s heart. Born Bertha Bowman on Dec. 29, 1937, she lived with the painful truth that her grandfather had been a slave prior to the Emancipation. Raised a Methodist, her parents (father a doctor, mother a teacher) raised her to seek truth and speak it with courage and love. The desire to know that which is true was strong, for at 9 years old, Bertha converted to Catholicism, having been inspired by the witness of religious sisters in her town.
At the age of 15, Bertha joined the order of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in La Crosse, Wisconsin. In time, Sister Thea went on to receive her B.A. in English, Speech and Drama from Viterbo University and her M.A. in English and Ph.D. from The Catholic University of America. Having finished her Ph.D. in English Language, Literature and Linguistics in 1972, Sister Thea began a prestigious 16-year teaching career, which included teaching at CUA, Viterbo and Xavier University.
As evidenced by her areas of study, words were important to Sister Thea. She recognized their power. They could be used to divide and mislead, or they could be used to promote unity and understanding. She, of course, chose to use them to do the latter. These words could be spoken, written and even sung. Having been gifted with an incredible voice, Sister Thea Bowman used her talents to bring glory to the kingdom of God. Through song, she inspired millions of people, led them to the love of the Father, raised cultural awareness and spread joy.
While not all of Sister Thea’s messages were communicated through song, everything was deeply rooted in the love of God. Her ability to speak truth in love was a defining element of her character. She understood how deep the wounds of racism in the United States and the Catholic Church were, and she used her time on earth to bring some healing to those wounds. At the age of 51, in the late stages of cancer, Sister Thea Bowman addressed the U.S. bishops in June 1989. Boldly she challenged the bishops on their role in the perpetuation of the racial divides that still existed within the Church:
“What does it mean to be black and Catholic? It means that I come to my church fully functioning. That doesn’t frighten you, does it? I come to my church fully functioning. I bring myself, my black self, all that I am, all that I have, all that I hope to become, I bring my whole history, my traditions, my experience, my culture, my African American song and dance and gesture and movement and teaching and preaching and healing and responsibility as gift to the Church.”
I am haunted by the words, “that doesn’t frighten you, does it?” Well ... does it?
As I write this, I wonder, with pain and some shame, why that at the age of 28 — having grown up in a devout Catholic family that spoke openly about racial injustices, having received 10 years of faith formation (CCD), and 10 years of Catholic education (middle school, high school, college, grad school) — I am unable to recall having ever learning about this incredible woman. A woman whose voice is so needed today.
So I ask myself, and you, and my Church — are we frightened?
Not only do we need to hear the message of Sister Thea Bowman, but we must respond to it. We need people who will celebrate differences, who will not shy away from diversity, who will refuse to remain silent bystanders in the face of racial injustices.
Sister Thea Bowman begins to end her speech with these words, and it is these words that I challenge myself and you to pray with:
“Today we’re called to walk together in a new way toward that Land of Promise and to celebrate who we are and whose we aren’t. If we, as a Church, walk together — don’t let nobody separate you — that’s one thing black folk can teach you — don’t let folks divide you up … . The Church teaches us that the Church is a family of families and the family got to stay together and we know, that if we do stay together ... if we walk and talk and work and play and stand together in Jesus’ name — we’ll be who we say we are — truly Catholic and we shall overcome — overcome the poverty — overcome the loneliness — overcome the alienation and build together a Holy city, a new Jerusalem, a city set apart where they’ll know that we are here because we love one another.”