This is the second part of the review of Sister Thea Bowman: Do You Hear Me, Church?  by Peggy A. Sklar, released as Sister Thea [1937-1990], has come into the formal process of investigation by the Church for determining her sainthood. In the first post below, I outlined her early years in the Deep South [Canton, Mississippi] as a precocious and observant middle class African girl living in a Jim Crow state where doctors like her father were refused admitting privileges in the region’s hospital. A turning point in her adolescent awakening occurred when a Catholic community of sisters, the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, established a school in 1948 which Bertha, [Sister Thea’s Methodist baptismal name] attended. Her involvement with the sisters included conversion to Catholicism, and at age 15, acceptance into the community’s formation program. Bertha, assigned the name Thea, completed her formation, and began school teaching as Sister Thea, first in Wisconsin and then in her hometown of Canton.
After several years of school teaching, Sister Thea was granted permission to attend Catholic University in Washington, D.C. I noticed in a second reading of this book that Sister Thea lived in a campus dormitory residence, and not a local convent. Although a very button-down conservative institution today, CU in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s was a forum for every religious, social, and political cause. [I was a student there at the time.] It appears that Sister Thea was able to network with the burgeoning black awareness movements on campus, a profound experience for an adult who had lived as a black minority of one in her professional world. She evidently gained respect for her energies on behalf of black artistic expression and education, and received an invitation to speak at Howard University, also in D.C. But Sklar observes that Sister Thea was able to balance her personal involvement in black cultural awareness activity with an ambitious and challenging course of studies on her way to an M.A. in English in 1969. Her master’s thesis reflected her admiration of St. Thomas More [1478-1535], the Chancellor of England martyred by Henry VIII. Sister Thea, familiar with More’s writings such as his Utopia, wrote her thesis on an early work of More , “A Rueful Lamentation on the Death of Queen Elizabeth,” the mother of Henry VIII.
It would seem a curious choice for one who is remembered today for raising black consciousness to liturgical expression in the Catholic Church, but as early as her Howard University address she expressed her passion that the key to advancement of her race was education, and by extension, Catholic education as a cultural and evangelization strategy. Her Catholic University years coincided with controversies in many northern cities, notably Boston, about school bussing, i.e., black children transported to public schools in affluent neighborhoods where the quality of instruction was superior. As if to confirm her passion, she remained at Catholic University to pursue her doctorate; she also taught undergraduate courses at CU in black literature
In 1970 Sister Thea was invited to a conference of African American sisters in Pittsburgh hosted by the Sisters of Mercy, forerunner to the National Black Sisters’ Conference. [See the NBSC’s current on-line status here.] She had undertaken the doctorate to enhance a career in university teaching at her community’s Viterbo College. For her doctoral dissertation, she returned to St. Thomas More and his Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation. Sklar writes that Sister Thea was attracted to More’s rhetoric “to explain his belief and actions.” [p. 48] Sklar brings home the depth of Sister Thea’s academic commitment to emphasize her deeply founded belief that the education of young African Americans was the key to full equality in America.
Upon receipt of her doctorate Sister Thea returned full time to Viterbo College in La Crosse, Wisconsin [later, a university] where she taught English literature and chaired the English Department. She was invited to present a three-week summer seminar, presumably on Thomas More, at Oxford in England upon the completion of her degree, which gives us something of an idea of her standing in the international academic community. That said, she was also a free spirit in the classroom, innovative in her methods of engagement and her efforts to develop independent thinking and experiencing—though she was old fashioned in her tough grading standards.
To this point in her life, she was recognized as a colorful and brilliant religious order teacher and researcher in the inner life of the English language, something of a rarity for a woman of color. Her image as the Apostle of Black religious experience in America did not fully emerge until she returned to her hometown of Canton, Mississippi, to live with or near her elderly parents, with her community’s approval. Fortuitously she was hired by her local bishop, Joseph B. Brunini, himself a remarkable advocate on behalf of the Black Catholic experience and a major supporter of St. Augustine Seminary in Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi, where suitable black candidates could study for the priesthood.
Brunini created for Sister Thea the diocesan position of “Diocesan Consultant for Intercultural Awareness for the Diocese of Jackson.” This proved to be one of those deliciously broad job descriptions where an energetic self-starter with a clear vision could go where the Spirit willed her and draw from her rich experiences in both English and Black Society. Her official duties included “designing a variety for diverse audiences, including children, teens, and adults, to break down the existing barriers between cultures.” [p. 54] Under this mission were listed other populations including Hispanic, Native American, and Asian communities as well.
Her presentations and programming would appropriately fall under the description of thoughtful evangelicalism. When I worked at St. Mary’s in Anderson, SC, in the summers of 1970 and 1971, I had noticed that many of the Black youth of multiple churches in our section of town turned out eagerly for any summer’s day activity I scheduled—bible stories, games, sports, etc.-- but on Sunday only older and more successful Black members came to Mass. Catholicism’s dignity and ritual appealed to the more successful African-American population. The high-spirited, swaying, song-filled Biblical rubric we associate with Black worship, particularly but not exclusively in the deep South, never made much inroad into Catholic parochial life. Conversion to Catholicism meant conversion to a white ritual of stability for blacks, even if as in Anderson the Charleston SC diocese maintained both white and colored parishes.
Many bishops of the South—in partnership with religious communities in the twentieth century—showed considerable energies in evangelizing African-Americans in the South, with these efforts dating back to at least the 1930’s. After Vatican II concluded in 1965, the adaptation of the liturgy and the style of evangelization made it permissible and possible to celebrate Church life in the evangelical style of cultural Black experience. My impression is that Black Catholicism suffered the same throes of adjustment as white Catholicism—high levels of enthusiasm for innovation among some, and an angry grief at the disruption of the known in others. I have not had the opportunity to review Sister Thea’s writings or addresses—she died in 1990, before the age of the new electronics--but she seems to have appreciated the dynamics of her time.
Her style invited listeners to experience God in the idiom of their cultural experience, Among other things, she set aside her religious habit in favor of a colorful dashiki to exemplify a return to native culture. [See the cover of Sklar’s book.] She invested considerable energy in forming choirs and integrating Black music into Church life, in part to help her own people recover their heritage. In the fall of 1987 Sister Thea served as contributor and editor for GIA Publications’ Lead Me, Guide Me, The African American Catholic Hymnal, songs, and psalms for liturgical use.
Her position with the Jackson, Mississippi Diocese allowed her to travel widely to several continents for conferences and addresses to energize Catholic movements of cultural awareness. Diagnosed with cancer in 1984, she suffered a fatal relapse and died in 1990. She had once described her life as “a shooting star.” By the numbers, she was right. Her full-time work as an evangelist of Black Catholicism lasted but twelve years, but she continues to be celebrated in a variety of ways. Siena College, my first priestly assignment, renamed a building after Sister Thea this year; the previously honored demoted individual was none other than the Catholic writer of the South, Flannery O’Connor. There is some irony in that.
As a student and English scholar, Sister Thea devoted much attention to precision and logical exposition. As an evangelical, she eschewed wordy cerebral expression for a holistic and sensual encounter with God. I hope that future scholars will be successful in piecing together her paper and experiential remains with the same skill she addressed St. Thomas More. Thirty years removed from her death, one wonders what Sister Thea would have made of the decreasing number of practicing Christians in the United States, or for that matter, the interracial response to the killing of George Floyd this past summer. The process of her canonization will no doubt progress or fall on our ability to understand where her brief life has taken us.
For Folks Who Can't Read Everything