Born: Dec.29th, 1937
Died: March 30th, 1990
FEast: March 30th
S.O.G. Thea Bowman
Born in Mississippi as Bertha Elizabeth Bowman, Thea was the granddaughter of a man who had been enslaved and the daughter of a physician and a teacher. Though her family was Methodist, Thea asked her parents if she could become Catholic at the age of only 9. At 15, she moved to Wisconsin to join the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, where she was the only Black member of her religious community. She was given the name Sister Mary Thea. She trained there to be a teacher and then attended Catholic University in Washington DC where she earned her Doctorate degree. Thea taught at many schools for 16 years, educating her students and community about Black history and experience and advocating for Civil Rights. She also was extremely influential in bringing the music she had grown up with to the Catholic Church, even publishing the first Catholic hymnal that included Gospel music. She used these songs not only to spread her faith, but also to help others understand the culture of the Black community and it's history, pain, and joy.
In 1978, Thea's leadership and impact expanded even further when she moved home to Mississippi to care for her parents. The bishop of Jackson appointed her as director of the Office of Intercultural Affairs for the diocese. In this position, she continued to fight racial prejudice and injustice in her writing, advocacy, and of course, song. She traveled globally and spoke to many congregations, sharing the music of her culture and encouraging Catholics to embrace their own cultures as well. She promoted fellowship, learning from other cultures, and joyfulness.
Even after she was diagnosed with cancer in 1984, Thea continued these speaking engagements, and her name only spread more widely. She appeared on television for interviews and a documentary about her life was pitched. On a 60 Minutes interview, she was even able to get her interviewer to say "Black is Beautiful". When asked what it means to be Black and Catholic, she said, “It means that 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.”
Despite the pain of the cancer and chemotherapy, Thea continued to travel in a wheelchair and still always wore a smile and her traditional African dress. In 1989, she took an unprecedented move by addressing the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. She spoke to them about African American spirituality and the importance of full inclusivity of Black Catholics in leadership, as well as the necessity of understanding the value of Catholic schools in Black communities. The bishops gave her roaring applause and many shed tears as she led them all in singing "We Shall Overcome" while joining hands.
Thea was given several honorary degrees shortly before her death, and when speaking to a priest and friend about a homily for her funeral, she asked that he say about her what Sojourner Truth said - " I'm not going to die. I'm going home like a shooting star". On her tombstone, she asked for the simple words "She tried".
Let us live with love and joy always, while speaking out against injustice. allow us to embrace our own cultures and backgrounds and bring those differences to the table to make our church and faith more accepting, understanding, and thereby more loving.
Thea is pictured here with her arms raised, mouth open, and eyes sparkling as she sings, While her style is more modern to fit with this project, she still wears a traditional African pattern like the ones she was known to wear in life. The colors chosen represent the vibrancy and joy that always accompanied her.