Saint of the week – Sister Thea Bowman

November 19, 2009 at 8:05 pm (Uncategorized)

Yes, I know that we have passed multiple weeks without featuring a saint, and yes, I also know that Sister Thea has not yet been canonized. However, evidently everyone who ever met her would say she was already a saint, her life is being examined for canonization, and lastly, I think this is somebody you should know about.

Sister Thea Bowman

Sister Thea Bowman

“God’s glory is revealed because we love one another across the barriers and boundaries of race, culture and class.”

Born in 1937, the granddaughter of slaves, Bertha Bowman was a native of Mississippi. Frustrated by a miserable public school system that was failing their bright daughter, Bertha’s teacher mother and physician father sent her to a Catholic school run by the Franciscans. Following that, Bertha asked to become a Catholic. At age 15, Bertha joined a Franciscan community in La Crosse, Wisconsin and took the name Sister Thea (“of God”). She was the only black member of her community.

 Sr. Thea had a remarkable singing voice and used it to familiarize people with black and spiritual songs. One of her goals was to bring more of black traditions into the Catholic Church in the United States.

 After getting her doctorate in English, Sr. Thea worked in Mississippi and Louisiana.

She taught at every level from elementary to college until she became a consultant on intercultural awareness for the bishop of Jackon, Mississippi. In this role, she spoke throughout the country, giving presentations that combined singing, gospel preaching, prayer, and storytelling.

Sister Thea had this to say about women: “Sharing life and faith and love is all our business, but in a special way and by a special calling–giving life, sustaining life, sharing life have always been life for women.”

In 1984, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which soon spread to her bones. As the cancer progressed, she continued her mission in her wheelchair until she died.

She prayed “to live until I die — to live fully.” In 1989, the U.S. bishops invited her to be a key speaker at their conference on Black Catholics. At the end of the meeting, at Sister Thea’s invitation, the bishops stood and sang “We Shall Overcome.”

In 1989, a year before her death, she became the first African-American women to receive an honorary degree from Boston College. Part of the citation read:

In the glory of your ministry we witness the Franciscan ideal of joy rendered more radiant by a woman of lively, living faith, truly Black and authentically Catholic. To your lifetime of building the Kingdom of God, preaching the Good News in the language of your people, and reclaiming the virtues and values that are your inheritance, Boston College says an approving “Amen!” and proudly declares you Doctor of Religion.”

Sr. Thea died of cancer March 31, 1990. She was 52.

Sr. Thea, from a 60 Minutes interview: “I think the difference between me and some people is that I’m content to do my little bit. Sometimes people think they have to do big things in order to make change. But if each one would light a candle we’d have a tremendous light.”



  1. joan knothe said,

    I am from La Crosse,Wisconsin and knew Thea there. Her joy was a blessing to behold! A fun, brilliant and God-loving woman….a modern saint if there ever was one…..
    Joan Catherine

  2. jack demic said,

    Sr thea has been a true heroine for me for 2 years now

  3. Faye Zabala said,

    Sr Thea’s Celebration of Life at St Matthias last Nov 18th was so inspiring and I am sure it will enrich my spiritual beings.

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