“What I Wish I Had Seen and Heard! Reflections on the Life of Thea Bowman” By Kathleen Merritt
Although I’ve never had the opportunity to meet Sr. Thea Bowman, I feel like I had. I was first introduced to her legacy by my mother when I was a teen. It was during the late 70s, when Sr. Thea came to speak to African American Catholics at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Greenville, South Carolina. Stories of what she did and what she said on that day are still being told today. In my parents’ house, whenever I would hear my mother start a conversation off by saying, “If anybody asks you who you are, tell them you are a child of God,” I knew that what was to follow included things Sr. Thea Bowman said to them on the day she came to St. Anthony of Padua.
Mary Corner recalls being present on the day that Sr. Thea came to Greenville. “Sr. Thea spoke with excitement as she explained to us what African American spirituality was about. She spoke, sang and actually danced on the altar. I had never seen someone dance on the altar before. Sr. Thea told us that African American spirituality was not something we should be ashamed of, and that we should share it with the Church by our words, our singing and using our talents to show God that our talents are no longer hidden,” said Corner.
The information contained in the following summary of the life of Sr. Thea Bowman was taken from the book, Thea Bowman In My Own Words, in the Introduction by Maurice J. Nutt, C.Ss.R., (2009). Pages vii-xiii.
Thea was born in Yazoo City, Mississippi in 1937 and was an only child. Her father was a physician and her mother, a school teacher. Growing up in the South introduced her to all different forms of racism and prepared her at an early age for the leader she was called to be. Her mother taught her to never return evil insults inflicted upon her. Little Thea spent a lot of her growing years listening and learning from the elders. She was exposed to the richness of her African American culture through its history, stories, music, songs, dances, prayers, food customs and traditions.
She attended a Catholic school established by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration for African Americans in Canton, Mississippi. At age ten she decided to become Catholic. At age 15 she decided she wanted to join the Franciscan sisters and became the only African American member in the convent. She became a teacher and, under the guidance of her Franciscan superiors, went on to earn her doctorate in English at the Catholic University of America in 1972.
Throughout her career she continued to speak and write about the significance of Black spirituality, Black song, the Black family and on being Black and Catholic. Her most notable contribution to the history of Black Catholics was in 1989, when she addressed the United States Catholic Bishops at their June meeting. By this time, Sr. Thea had been diagnosed with cancer and was weak and in a wheelchair. She did not let the deterioration of her body stop her from telling the bishops the “true truth” about what it means to be Black and Catholic, about African American history and spirituality. She challenged the Bishops to continue to evangelize the African American community, to promote full participation of Blacks in leadership and to understand the value of Catholic schools in the African American community. At the end of her presentation, she asked the bishops to move closer and sing with her, “We Shall Overcome” They did exactly that.
As a Black Catholic leader in the Church today, I am thankful and appreciative that my mother introduced me to the legacy of Sr. Thea Bowman, a woman who lived her life as a saint!