I am more than a little surprised that in a year filled with strife and moral debate over racism in the United States, there has not been more attention paid to the initiation of canonization steps for Sister Thea Bowman [1937-1990] at the request of her home diocese of Jackson, Mississippi. Bertha Bowman was a youthful convert to Catholicism inspired by white Catholic religious sisters ministering to her black community [“Thea” was the religious name assigned when she entered the convent some years later]. From Peggy A. Sklar’s introduction to Sister Thea for Paulist Press , I came away with the thought that Sister Thea is one of those people who zoom across the sky for a relatively short time but leave words with lasting potential. [She died of cancer at the age of 52.]
If Sister Thea is canonized, it will not be in recognition for having lived a lifetime behind cloister walls. Her life was remarkably diverse: sustained by an optimistic ego strength and devotion to a multi-cultural God that reached far beyond Western European Catholicism per se. Her diversity begins on her street. She lived on the “black side” of the street that divided her native Canton, Mississippi. Crossing the line was always trouble, even when the Bowman family dog wandered into Caucasian territory. No matter that Bertha’s father was a physician and her mother a retired schoolteacher. When Bertha, a late-in-life child was born, her father delivered her at home as Canton had no hospitals that would treat African American women.
Bertha, born in 1937, grew up in a stimulating household with two professional parents—her biographer describes her simultaneously as energetic, playful, and social. Her tea parties were occasionally integrated as circumstances permitted. A significant contribution to Bertha’s future was her mother’s voice and cultivation of music. Sklar identifies a community leader named Mother Ricker who taught the neighborhood children in her home Bible songs with accompanying Scripture stories. It is worth reflecting upon the Scriptural and devotional spirituality of Black evangelical song and worship: the music and sermons are drawn heavily from the Hebrew Scriptures, psalms of deliverance and the intervention of God to right the wrongs inflicted upon his chosen people. Even academic Black Theology today carries this salvific characteristic. It was not until the twentieth century and the ecumenical renewal of Scripture scholarship that trends such as Liberation Theology and Women’s Theological Studies took their places on many Catholic campuses [often kicking and screaming, to be sure.]
Bertha’s education was a major worry of her parents, who understood the “separate but equal” philosophy was a grave handicap to most black youngsters seeking a better future. It is little talked about today how Catholic bishops and certain religious orders pioneered Catholic evangelization in the South among African Americans. In 1946 Catholic Bishop Richard O. Gerow of Natchez, Mississippi asked the Servants of the Holy Trinity to develop a Catholic community. Catholics southern missionaries were not “poaching” from other Christian denominations; in fact, two-thirds of the African American community around Canton was unchurched. A pastor was named, and eventually the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration—including a nurse-- arrived in Canton to establish a school. [In 1884 the Plenary Council of Baltimore had mandated a parochial school in every parish in the United States.]
It is an interesting thing that of the first 94 students enrolled in this new Catholic school, the most enthusiastic to see it launched were black professionals—including the children of Protestant ministers. Bertha Bowman’s parents enrolled her, and Mrs. Bowman volunteered. As is true today, the local Catholic Church became a magnet of social services, particularly for mothers and children. It is hard to know how many converts were brought into this Canton church, but I have to suppress a smile whenever I hear the phrase “new evangelization” because the old time religion of St. Francis of Assisi seemed to be highly effective, thank you very much. [My own order of Franciscans began such work in the 1930’s.]
We do know of one convert—Bertha Bowman. Sklar describes the deep impression on Bertha made by the sisters of the parish. Bertha converted to Catholicism at 10, but her desire to follow the sisters’ example led her to seek entrance into the community itself. Her wise parents understood the culture shock of relocating from the Jim Crow south to the German sisters’ formation/mother’s house in Wisconsin. But at age 15, a determined Bertha and a sister chaperone made the trek via segregated trains to the upper Midwest to La Crosse, Wisconsin.
For Bertha, her cultural and social world turned upside down. She found herself a distinct minority of one, a black candidate in a white religious community. As every newbie to religious life quickly learns, the admirable members one meets in the field are not always representative of the entire community. Sklar is not overly specific about racial slights to the new applicant, noting that “she also had to adjust to the comments and behaviors of some of the sisters, not all of whom were as kind or accepting of her as those she knew in Canton.” [p. 21] But the author tells a good deal when she observed that Bertha’s learned practice of subservience around white people in Canton served her well during the formation years. The candidate from Canton had to adjust from the traditional cooking of the Deep South to the sui generis German cuisine of the northern sisters. And despite her parents’ best efforts on behalf of her education, she tested several grades behind her new northern peers.
Bertha persevered, however, and graduated from high school in 1955. She took the habit as a postulant to the religious community and began her studies at Viterbo College. She fell ill to tuberculosis and lost about one year of her formation to recovery at a TB sanitorium in Wisconsin, too ill to undertake even basic college studies at a local college. In 1956 she had sufficiently recovered to take the next step pf her formation, novitiate, a time of intense reflection upon vowed community life. As part of her entrance rite into the novitiate, she was given the religious name “Thea” meaning “of God” and not incidentally close to her father’s name, “Theon.” Novitiates in general are strict with greater isolation from the world; the overall theme is the prospect of vows at the end of the two-year period, an intense scrutiny of one’s spirituality, understanding of the order’s mission, and one’s capacity to live the vows and community life.
Having completed her novitiate and taken simple vows in 1958, Sister Thea was ready for field work and assigned to a Catholic school in La Crosse. Sklar comments that some parents at her new school were “alarmed” by her placement. Sister Thea taught a combined fifth and sixth grade class with little or no training, a practice known as the “twenty-year plan” in its day, when sisters went to summer school to the cusp of middle age to complete a bachelors degree. Sister Thea, age 21, did more than survive; she seems to have thrived in the classroom on the strength of her cheerful personality, her imagination and innovation, and strong bonding with parents.
When serious canonization investigations begin, and when the definitive biography of Sister Thea is written down the road, it will be fascinating to review the minutes of superiors’ assignment meetings, for orders varied in the amount of input allowed from members as to their preferences of career studies and assignments. My professor of New Testament Studies in the seminary told me that he had submitted a request in his seminary days to earn a doctorate in botany to teach in a Franciscan college. Sister Thea’s career track is intriguing. After two years teaching in La Crosse, she was transferred to, of all places, her hometown of Canton, Mississippi, where she taught in the Catholic elementary and high school over a seven-year span. It is here that the author describes the more intimate details of segregation.
The social indignities and the economic hardships of Southern black individuals prior to the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement are hopefully well-known among those familiar with American history. Sister Thea had departed Canton as an adolescent; now she was returning in 1961 as a professional woman, a habited Catholic nun, just as the movement was gaining national attention and regional opposition. Sister Thea’s ministry in Canton was an empowerment of personal dignity and faith. She labored to restore an appreciation of Black heritage, prose, and hymnody through her teaching and evidently in her other parish ministrations.
The word or gestures of “empowerment” can be heard in several ways. To much of the white establishment, empowerment sounded subversive and threatening. Her passion for music, for example, led to her fifty-student choir recording an album in 1967, The Voice of Negro America, composed of fourteen spirituals. It was clear to many, including some in her own convent who feared for their safety that Thea was not just another Franciscan nun teaching the alphabet to the poor. Her vision for her students—and her own people, for that matter--was broader, loftier, and concretely Biblical.
Thea was pursuing her summer “twenty-year plan” at Viterbo College, but around 1966 she transferred to Catholic University in Washington, D.C. in pursuit of a degree in English literature. She would study at Catholic University until 1972, earning her doctorate in English Language, Literature, and Linguistics. Pursuit of a doctorate in any decent school is quite expensive and takes a member out of circulation for productive community service for some time. I can only guess that her religious community was preparing her for college teaching, but again it would be intriguing to assess the community’s decision. Was she being brought north due to racial tension, or was her community prescient about her gifts to the broader American Church?
I am wrapping up part one of this post with one of those odd coincidences of life. For two years Sister Thea and I attended Catholic University simultaneously [1969-71]. As a doctoral candidate, she was teaching undergraduate courses and I could have signed up for one of them in my last semester. However, I took “urban planning” instead. I had no clue who Thea was or what her course was about. True Renaissance Man here.
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