|Sister Thea swapped out her habit for a dashiki |
and head wrap.
Born this day in 1937: Thea Bowman (1937–1990), first African American member the of Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration and nun who helped bridge the gap between white Catholicism and African Americans
Thea Bowman was born Bertha J. Bowman and grew up in Canton, Mississippi. She was the daughter of a medical doctor, Theon Edward Bowman, and a music teacher, Mary Esther Coleman (and the granddaughter of slaves). Her parents were a great influence on her. So too were the “old folks” of her community, who kept alive African American folk traditions in both story and song.
Bowman was baptized as an Episcopalian and attended various Protestant churches. In the 1940s she became acquainted with the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, a group of white nuns from Wisconsin, who crossed the color lines of Canton to teach black children at the Holy Child Jesus School. At the young age of 10, Bowman decided to become Catholic, and her parents allowed her to attend the mission school. By age 12 Bowman knew she wanted to become a nun. She traveled to Wisconsin in 1953 to join the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration at the St. Rose Convent in La Crosse. She took her vows and the name Thea (“of god”) in 1956.
In 1965 Bowman graduated magna cum laude with an English degree from Viterbo College (the order’s school). In 1969 she earned an MA in English from Catholic University in Washington, D.C. and in 1972 earned a PhD in language, literature, and linguistics. She then began to study African American music and literary traditions.
Bowman taught at Viterbo College, serving as chair of the English department and director of the Hallelujah Singers, and gave workshops and presentations at other schools, workshops, conferences, and churches. She wove together Catholic teachings and practices and African American cultural and religious traditions and styles. She became well-known for her gospel singing. She also served as director of intercultural awareness for the Diocese of Jackson, Mississippi.
Through her work she brought the Catholic Church into the African American community. At the same time, she advocated for greater presence of African Americans within the Church structure and thought. During her career she helped found the First National Black Sisters Conference, the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans, and the National Black Catholic Congress. She even wrote a Catholic hymnal for churches in African American communities. In addition to advancing African American participation in the Church, she advocated for a stronger role for women as well.
By all accounts Bowman was a dynamic, mesmerizing, inspiring speaker, singer, and role model. She was the recipient of numerous honors during her lifetime and was posthumously awarded the Laetare Medal from Notre Dame University.
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