Sister Thea Bowman was a Catholic Franciscan nun, evangelist, and educator known for introducing culturally inclusive practices into the Catholic liturgy. Her contributions were so significant that she is being considered for sainthood.
Thea Bowman was born Bertha Elizabeth Bowman on December 29, 1937, in Yazoo City, Mississippi. Her mother, Mary Esther (Coleman), was a teacher, and her father, Theon Edward, was a physician. Bowman grew up in Canton, Mississippi. Although her parents were Methodists, she attended the Holy Child Jesus School, a Catholic school for African American children. She was greatly influenced by her teachers, who were members of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration (FSPA), a religious order from La Crosse, Wisconsin. When she was eight or nine years old, she asked her parents for permission to convert to Catholicism. Then, at age fifteen, Bowman moved north to study at the St. Rose Convent in La Crosse. When she joined the order in 1953, she was the FSPA’s first African American nun. She was given the name Sister Mary Thea, in honor of the Blessed Mother and her father, Theon.
Sister Bowman trained to become a teacher and taught on every level. She earned her B.A. in English, Speech and Drama in 1965 from nearby Viterbo College (now University). She received her M.A. in English in 1969 and a Ph.D. in English Language, Literature, and Linguistics in 1972, both from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. She was an elementary teacher at Blessed Sacrament School in La Crosse and a high school teacher at Holy Child High School in Canton, Mississippi. In the 1970s, she taught English for several years at Viterbo. As a graduate student, she created the first Black literature course at Catholic University. Later, Bowman was on the faculty at Xavier University of Louisiana, the only Catholic HBCU. At Xavier, she was one of the founding members of the master of theology program and the Institute of Black Catholic Studies (1980).
In addition to teaching, Sister Bowman traveled widely in the United States and abroad, giving public speeches and lectures, short courses and workshops. Through song, dance, stories and poetry, she spread her message of joy, freedom, and pride in her culture. She argued that the Catholic Church should be more inclusive, taking into account the cultural practices of its diverse membership. To that end, she was instrumental in the publication of Lead Me, Guide Me: An African American Catholic Hymnal (1987).
In 1978, Bowman returned to Canton to care for her aging parents. She was appointed to direct the Office of Intercultural Affairs for the Diocese of Jackson, where she continued to spread the message of diversity and inclusion. Her parents died in 1984, and that same year, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Throughout her treatment, Sister Bowman continued to keep a rigorous schedule of engagements, although she was eventually confined to a wheelchair. In 1987, she was profiled on the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes. One of her last public speeches was in June of 1989, addressing the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops at their annual meeting held at Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. The same year, Bowman was the first African American woman to receive an honorary Doctor of Religion from Boston College.
On March 30, 1990, Sister Thea Bowman died peacefully in her childhood home in Canton, at the age of 52. After two funeral masses, she was laid to rest beside her parents in Memphis, Tennessee. Prior to her death, she established the Sister Thea Bowman Foundation to support Catholic education in Mississippi, and to date there are almost twenty institutions that bear her name. In 2018, Bowman was designated a Servant of God, the first step (of four) in the process of becoming a saint. Although there are eleven Americans designated as saints in the Catholic Church, none are African American. Bowman is one of six African Americans being considered for canonization; the others are: Sr. Henriette Delille, Pierre Toussaint, Julia Greeley, Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, and Father Augustus Tolton.