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Thea Bowman

By Addie Lorraine Walker & Charlene Smith


Sister THEA BOWMAN, FSPA (1937-1990) was the embodiment of the intersection of Black religion and arts, of cultural heritage confronting contemporary life issues. Initially reared as a Methodist, she became a Roman Catholic at the age of nine. Sister Thea is best remembered for her gift of helping children to grow in awareness of their gifts, their cultural heritage and their heritage as children of God. Through song, dance, poetry, drama, and story, she evangelized and catechized, communicating joy, freedom, and pride. Sister Thea helped to found the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana where her philosophy of religious education-educating the whole person, body, mind and spirit, using strategies and methods rooted in the Black Christian tradition in the context of community-shaped and transformed both faculty and students. She left her imprint on many hearts and lives through her lectures, concerts, courses, articles and recordings of traditional African American Spirituals. Her influence continues at Catholic Universities (Boston College, Notre Dame University and Xavier University of Louisiana, to name a few) and Catholic academic institutions throughout the US.


Overview Essay by Addie Walker, SSND

S. Thea Bowman, FSPA, an African American Roman Catholic sister, was the embodiment of the intersection of Black religion and arts, of cultural heritage confronting contemporary life issues. She was born, Bertha Bowman, December 29, 1937 in Yazoo City, MS, the only child of Dr. Theon Edward and Mary Esther (Coleman) Bowman. Her family later moved to Canton, MS. Though she was reared initially as a Methodist, she became a Roman Catholic at the age of 9 and was baptized June 8, 1947. She went to Catholic school staffed by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. Bertha entered the Sisters in 1953 and in 1956 took the name Sister Thea ("of God"). She completed a doctoral degree in English Language Literature, Linguistics and taught grade school, high school and college in La Crosse, WI, Canton, MS, and at the Catholic University of America in DC. Rooted in her cultural traditions and faith, then living as religious sister and in her ministry as teacher, S. Thea came to understand all education as religious education.

Sister Thea is best remembered for her gift of helping children to grow in awareness of their gifts, their cultural heritage and their heritage as children of god. Through song, dance, poetry, drama, and story, she evangelized and catechized, communicating joy, freedom, and pride. She used traditional Black teaching techniques that were holistic, participatory and reality focused that showed how music is a way we have of preserving history and teaching values.

In the years leading up to the time of her death, she gave lectures, recitals, short courses, workshops, and conference presentations spreading the messages and good news that people are gifted, that Black is beautiful, and that cross-cultural collaboration enriches both education and living. Her teaching style was characterized by her ability to make learners and hearers, doers and agents of the Good News, more aware of their own gifts and potential and putting the races in touch with one another, for her "a ministry of joy." In sharing Black heritage and spirituality, it was her desire to leave the world a better place. For Sister Thea, "if we work, pray and stand together, we can create a new heaven and ease life for each other." So convinced was she that this new reality was possible in our times, she fearlessly confronted Bishops, elders, youth, children, adults, faculty and students with the power of the Word enfleshed in her life and in her teaching. This Word made flesh had the power to heal, to save-making whole, healing conflicts, healing the earth, healing inequalities, and healing people's spirit.

S. Thea helped to found the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana where her philosophy of religious education-educating the whole person, body, mind and spirit, using strategies and methods rooted in the Black Christian tradition in the context of community-shaped and transformed both faculty and students. She inspired and challenged students and faculty alike to educate using the rich resources from the African American cultural and faith heritage; Catholic sacramental traditions; and Black religion and the arts tradition. S. Thea Bowman died, March 30, 1990. She left her imprint on many hearts and lives through her lectures, concerts, courses, articles and recordings of traditional African American Spirituals. Her influence continues at Catholic Universities (Boston College, Notre University and Xavier University of Louisiana, to name a few) and Catholic academic institutions throughout the US.

Biographical Notes by Charlene Smith, FSPA

Notes from unpublished work by Charlene Smith, FSPA and John Feister. c.2008.

Thea Bowman's Background

In 1959, as a young college student far from home, she wrote at length about her home, a home trying to avoid what would become inescapable: the growing Civil Rights Movement. Here is that snapshot of Canton, Mississippi, in Thea's own words:

Of the 18 states south of the Mason Dixon Line, I have visited only seven, and even in my home state, I have neither traveled nor observed extensively. But one little Deep South city I have known intimately and its people I have dearly loved. Of it and of them I shall tell you.

The place is Canton, a town of about 8,000, half of whose population is Negro. Its climate is moderate with a nine-month's season of growth and pasturage. Extensive heating and housing are not required. The average winter temperature is 53.6 degrees, but short spells of bitter cold are experienced, as are days of summer-like heat. Moisture is usually adequate, and magnolias, azaleas, camellias, oleander, crepe myrtle, and wisteria grace the city's streets.

Canton is an architectural conglomeration. Stately antebellum mansions of white Confederate descendants contrast sharply with ultramodern residences, neat bungalows and the small, dilapidated, almost uninhabitable dwellings of the very poor. Segregation is an invulnerable tradition. Whites have their streets and residential sections, as have the Negroes, and except for purposes of business, there is scant intercourse between the races. For this reason, the only people in Canton of whom I could hope to write are the Negroes. I lived across the road from white folks, shopped at their stores, passed them on the streets, but there was never a single southern white that I really knew….

What the white folks tell us is so much nonsense 'You can't have equal schools because you don't pay equal taxes. You don't pay equal taxes because you can't have equal jobs. You can't get paying jobs because you aren't educated, and if you are educated you're black, so what's the difference.' That's the vicious circle aspect of many a Cantonian Negro's existence. People who have not paying jobs, no matter how strong their backs, how lofty their ambitions, how sterling their ideals, cannot, simply cannot, better their conditions.

Many of the younger generation, really qualified to hold good positions and lead their people, become disgusted and leave the South for distant parts where they can work hard, rear their families without constant stress and live decent normal lives. Their desertion, which one can in no way censure, does nothing to better the Negro's position in Canton. My people need leaders, prudent, capable and strong. They are not clamoring for integration, but they want equal rights-jobs, educational facilities, equitable public services. Those who are able join the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People], giving financial support to their attempts to secure justice for our race. Some few complain, others pray, more simply wait.

Politically, we can do nothing. We cannot serve as senator, representative, jurist, policeman, constable or county clerk. Mississippi has granted Negroes the right to vote, but their voting is discouraged. I lived through the days when Senator Bilbo paraded up and down Main Street-his resolve to keep "niggers" away from the polls. I was not old enough to vote, but I am old enough to remember the Bilbo cartoons that plagued our papers and my elders' conversations of deceit, trickery and violence used against Negroes at Mississippi polls …

One thing that will ever strike me as an anomaly is this: Though most of Canton's white inhabitants professedly look upon their dark skinned brothers as an inferior breed, they pride themselves on the number and efficiency of the Negro servants they hire to clean their homes, cook their food and rear their children. Some wealthy families hire a Negro maid, laundress, gardener, housekeeper, one or more 'nurses' for the children, one or more cooks. Uniformed servants in starched white, black, or blue, with dainty aprons and frilly collars are a familiar early morning sight.

Negro servants are always made to feel like servants. They are hired help. They use the servant's entrance, eat their meals alone, refrain from conversation with visitors, respond to requests with a little bow and a polite 'Yes, Ma'am,' do their work silently and well. Southern etiquette demands that this be so, and neither servants nor masters would wish things differently. In some cases, Negro servants work in a family for generations and are passed on like treasured heirlooms. But in other instances, people, forced by necessity to take the first jobs available, are unmercifully exploited. Wages are low-sometimes less than 15 cents an hour, and work is all too strenuous ….

My people have more than their share of unwed mothers and what most amazes outsiders is that these girls and women are not social outcasts. They rear their own children and many eventually marry. Why are unwed mothers so common? One can only conjecture. Maybe it is a foggy conception of the moral law, maybe a hangover from slave days when men and women were mated like cattle or the later age of common law love, maybe a demonstration of the fact that when human beings are denied normal and licit pleasures they descend to those which are natural but illegitimate.

Through the centuries my people have been a starry-eyed happy people of hope-hope for the future and for better days.

Thea Bowman's ancestors were indeed people of hope. During the century before the Civil War, itself a century before the Civil Rights Movement, the "old folks," ancestors so loved by Thea Bowman, came into Mississippi, slaves to their white plantation owners.

This is the land of King Cotton. It is the land of magnolia trees and mockingbirds, of a mild climate north of Jackson, subtropics to the south. Although cotton's ascendancy had once rocketed the state to one of the nation's wealthiest, the wealth was not shared widely. In the decades after the War Between the States, Mississippi became known as a poor state, and is now ranked consistently among the poorest in the nation.

Into this land of plantations and slaves, Thea's ancestors came as slaves. In her cadence, Thea wrote:

Most of my ancestors came to the Americas in chains, from thousands of towns and villages, from many racial stocks and many tribes-from the spirited Hansas, the gentle Mandingos, the creative Youlas, the Ibos, Efiks, Krus, the proud Fantirs, the warlike Ashantis, the Dahomeans, the Binis, and Sengealese. Some were captured in nature wars and sold to Europeans. Some were kidnapped. Some were sold into slavery for infractions of native laws.

They came to this hemisphere and met with the other side of my family-island dwellers from Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, and the Caribbean, French traders, and Native Americans with whom they mixed and married; Spanish conquistadors and Portuguese traders and owners and overlords who claimed their bodies as well as their labor.

In America, no matter what their percentage of Negroid blood, they were called sambos, niggers, nigras, colored, negroes, blacks, and this is what I am.

We came to North America as chattel labor-chained, stripped naked and examined, sold and branded. Having no property, owned, not owning, we were found everywhere, but chiefly in Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, Maryland, and Virginia, those states where cotton was king.

We were valued because we were strong. We could work in un-shaded fields where noonday temperatures reached 140 degrees. We planted and harvested your cotton, cooked your food, washed your clothes, reared your children, built the antebellum mansions in which you take so much pride. Even after we were freed from slavery by law and fought your wars and helped to build your nation less than 15 years ago, many of us were, by law, denied equal opportunity, the right to equal education, even the right to vote.

This was the heritage of Thea's people.

Thea Bowman's Early Education

The day I was born, my father went out and started a separate bank account for my education. As far back as I can remember, education was a top priority in my family on both sides. My mother's mother was a teacher and a school principal. Even today, the school she founded in Greenville is still named after her. And, my father's father was a slave, but he managed to go to school through the second grade. So, the expectation was that education was important, not just for yourself, but for your family and your community. And it brought [the] responsibility to try to help somebody else. That's a different kind of teaching from what many families believe today.-Sister Thea Bowman

In the late 1980s, in Sister Thea: Songs of My People, Thea recalled:

I grew up in a community where the teaching of religion was a treasured role of the elders-grandparents, old uncles and aunts, but also parents, big brothers and sisters, family friends, and church members. Many of the best teachers were not formally educated. But they knew Scripture, and they believed the Living Word must be celebrated and shared. They did not struggle to ask, 'Did this Biblical event occur? When or how did it happen?' Somehow they intuited that the stories were concerned with truth more than with factuality. They asked only, "What does this story mean? What did it mean in Biblical times? What does it mean in our lives today? What does it call me to do?"

Their teachings were simple. Their teachings were sound. Their methodologies were such that, without effort, I remember their teachings today: songs of Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Miriam, David, Dives, Ezekiel, Daniel, Jonah, John, Mary, Jesus: his birth, his life, his teachings, his miracles, his disciples, his Passion, his glory, his promise to us all of eternal life.

Sister Mileta Ludwig, FSPA, in her history of the Franciscan Sisters, A Chapter of Franciscan History, describes the situation the new FSPA missionaries would enter:

Once the FSPA had come to Canton and established the new school, they knew how important their role was and they dedicated themselves to it without one look back: In every sense, the term "mission" is applicable to Holy Child Jesus School. In Mississippi, where the colored make up one-half of a total population of 2,200,000, Catholics number about forty-four thousand; of those forty-four thousand, fewer than five thousand are colored.

In the Canton area, Negroes constitute about seventy-eight percent of the population. Very few of them are Catholics. More than two-thirds belong to no church whatever. Holy Child Jesus Mission is one of the nine diocesan centers by means of which the Church is trying to bring the message of Christ to these masses. Since Canton is located in a typical sharecropping region, the Negroes are, for the most part, extremely poor. Their homes are often mere sheds almost unfit for human habitation.

The work is further handicapped by prejudice and other unfortunate social conditions. Many colored have had no opportunities for formal education. Most of the approximately 90 pupils enrolled in the mission school for the 1948-1949 term actually had to be classified as un-graded. Not even one-fifth of the children were Catholic, but all were docile and receptive to the Faith. In view of the rapid increase of the Negro population in the country, the Church and the nations must look to the youth of the race as an important factor in the future happiness and security of both; for, as the founder {Thomas Augustine Judge, Boston} of the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity often said, 'Save the child, and you save all.'

As soon as Holy Child Jesus School opening was announced, the Bowmans enrolled Bertha in Grade Six. It was in that territory that Bertha accelerated her reading and learning. Years later, she would reflect on her transfer from public school to the new mission:

Because my mother wanted me to have a chance in life, she sent me to a Catholic school. The black public schools were tremendously disadvantaged and understaffed. At the black Catholic school, I remember using books given to us by St. Angela's Academy in Carroll, Iowa and Aquinas High School in La Crosse, Wis. We shared gym clothes with students in Breda, Iowa. The sisters begged a lot, and because they did, our school was much better supplied. Men and women all over the country gave a dollar or two to help us get an adequate education …

The priest, brothers, and sisters brought an extraordinary kind of dedication to the education process. They involved us in fundraising and helped us to educate ourselves. That was the key. They also worked with our parents and never left us feeling indebted. They made us feel that we contributed to the process."

Additionally, amazingly to the blacks, Holy Child Jesus School did not discriminate on race, class-or even religion. Again, Sister Thea wrote about it later in life:

The vast majority of the students were Baptist, Methodist, Holiness. There were at most two dozen Catholics in a student population of 180. Holy Child was a good place to be.

We loved our teachers because they first loved us…For a handful of Catholics, for devout Protestants, for the children of a surprising number of ministers, deacons, elders, and evangelizers, and for children who rarely went to any church, the Catholic school was a graced and grace-filled environment. We all went to Mass each week, sang in the choir, learned, if we wished, to serve Mass (boys only) or to care for vestments and altar {girls only).

We all prayed before every class. We all studied catechism. With Father Gilbert [Hay] and Father Justin [Furman], religion class was a time to be anticipated and treasured-stories of Jesus and the saints, songs, and prayers, and Catholic doctrine. Our pastors loved us. They entertained us as they taught us. Some of my friends and schoolmates developed insights and skills (reading, thought, judgment, song) which enabled them to become young leaders in the Protestant churches of Canton

In another reflection, this time for a school fundraising letter, Sister Thea remembered cleaning up the old army barracks that started the school-washing windows, polishing desks, the works. She recalled the first day of school, when about 70 children, herself among them, showed up: "What an amalgam of children we were-some hungry; some afraid; some eager and inquisitive; some shy; some far too behind ever to catch up academically; some far too old, even for sixth grade; most already discouraged with school and learning; some too poor to pay even the $2 per month tuition that was asked but not required."

She reflected on the transition from an overcrowded, underfinanced public school to a "very different school environment--" one that was not overcrowded and where children were expected to learn. If a child didn't come to school, Sister or Father would visit the home to inquire why. "Homework had a purpose, and you'd better do it at home or you would find yourself the next day doing it in the classroom after school and getting the help you needed to do your best.

"There were clean books for everyone, which was definitely not the case in the segregated public school, where children were considered lucky to get a hand-down book that had been used for five years by white children. Everyone pitched in to make the schoolwork. Students made flash cards and bulletin-board learning devices. They helped prepare the school lunch. They wrote thank-you notes to benefactors from all over the country who contributed to the school.

"We cleaned the school, sanded the desks, cut the grass, and painted beaverboard walls. We worked in groups. Ada helped me with math. I helped Walter and Willie with reading. We all learned to flash flash cards and to hear spelling drills. We older children supervised the younger children on the playground. We taught them songs and games and dances. We wiped their noses and soothed their tears." Under the priests' and sisters' supervision, Holy Child Jesus School operated as "a big school-family, sharing stories and songs, jokes and signifying, faith, and hope, hard work, and love."

The results were tangible and incredible. Children who had wasted time in the segregated public schools now became learners. "We walked and talked and thought and felt different. We knew we were learning every day. We knew we were growing. We wore those Holy Child Jesus uniforms, even the most faded ones, with pride. HCJ was our school. We thought we were special."

Tellingly, she wrote, "Academically, I made it because Holy Child Jesus School had given me a chance." The impact Holy Child Jesus School had on Bertha and on her fellow students was indeed life changing. In a climate of racism, segregation, and injustice suffered at the hands of whites, Holy Child Jesus School brought tremendous hope and a sense of dignity and pride to the black and poor of Canton.

Thea's entry into the Religious Life

At age 15, Bertha announced her intentions and moved to St. Rose Convent, the La Crosse, Wisconsin, motherhouse of the Franciscan sisters who had come to Holy Child Jesus school. Her intent was to become a woman religious.

In the United States, the years 1956 through 1958 were roiling with the incipient Civil Rights Movement. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. the Board of Education that school segregation was unconstitutional. In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat at the front of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, 250 miles east of Canton, Mississippi, launching the Montgomery Bus Boycott and its leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Through his marvelous juxtapositions of constitutional with biblical dicta, he inspirationally led blacks and others to nonviolent resistance against segregation and Jim Crow laws in the South. A few years later, in the 1960's would come President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs. The Civil Rights Movement awakened people of color, women and others into realizing long-denied human rights were theirs to claim. Sister Thea was intensely interested in the movement towards justice and peace for Negroes.

Geography and commitment to religious life orientation kept her from actual involvement in the movement during her early years in La Crosse. In the novitiate in the North, however, she prayed, in the words of Old Testament prophet Amos, that "justice roll down like a river."

Teaching grades five and six two years at Blessed Sacrament School in La Crosse ended successfully. To her complete delight, she indeed was assigned to teach that fall at Holy Child Jesus in Canton. Six weeks of summer school courses at Viterbo passed rapidly. With a happy heart, eight years after she had first left, Sister Thea boarded the train to her beloved South. Here she taught elementary and high school classes until becoming a full time doctoral student in English at the Catholic University of America. She was a distinguished scholar and began a burgeoning career as a speaker/singer on black oral tradition in literature and gospel music. From 1971 through 1978 she was professor of English and chairperson of the department at Viterbo College (now University) in La Crosse.

In 1978 she returned to Mississippi to help care for her aging parents. As Consultant of Intercultural Awareness for the Catholic Diocese of Jackson, she soon engaged in speaking and singing throughout the South, all over the United States, Canada, the Caribbean Islands. Her subject multicultural awareness leading to mutual appreciation another and enhancing Catholic liturgy with African ritual, gospel music, and dance.

In 1987 she was interviewed by Mike Wallace for 60 Minutes. The segment was well received and broadcast four times the next three years. Wallace was truly impressed by Thea, and they enjoyed a relationship from that time forward. In the Foreword to the book Sister Thea Bowman Shooting Star, Wallace wrote,

"I don't remember when I've been more moved, more enchanted by a person whom I've profiled, that by Sister Thea Bowman. I confess I was a little skeptical when she was first suggested to me… but just one session with this remarkable individual convinced me; her openness, her compassion, her intelligence, her optimism, her humor captured me…

"[S]he told me, 'Many of our priests in their training and preaching didn't do much body work, so techniques of relaxation, techniques of rhythm, techniques of communication and expression that come from us in the black community, that is what they have to learn to be more comfortable with' And her priestly acolytes did, on camera, for us.

"Halfway into our filming, I learned that Sister Thea was already fighting cancer, but I couldn't believe it, for she was so confident, so optimistic, so determined…

"'But there aren't enough Sister Theas around,' I told her. 'One's enough,' she promptly answered, 'you ask my friends. They'll tell you that's plenty.'

"She was wrong. For I was one of her friends, and we need so many more like Thea."

1988 marked the twentieth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination, by now his birthday officially a national holiday, driving the growth and energy of local community observances. The Milwaukee, Wisconsin, community invited Thea to be the keynote speaker for their 1988 event.

The Milwaukee celebration was a singular triumph for Thea. A free and open to the public program, "Martin Luther King: Seize the Vision," took place in Uihlein Hall at the Performing Arts Center in downtown Milwaukee.

Journalist Lyn L. Hartman covered the rehearsal and captured the spirit and music of Thea for the Milwaukee Journal. She wrote, "One of Sister Thea Bowman's missions is letting kids know that they are beautiful. That's part of how she pursues the dreams of Martin Luther King, Jr." In the interview that followed, Thea spoke of Dr King: "People keep saying, 'Where's the next Martin Luther King?' We're all called, I think. We're called by our citizenship, by our membership in the human race. We're all called to free ourselves and to free one another. I want our singing to be able to convey that, not just to ourselves, but to our children and to our elders…"

In the interview Thea talks of her philosophy of music: "In African tradition, music was a tool for teaching. Song was used to give a lesson or a warning. It was used to praise, to censure or admonish, or to bring a kind of solemnity and celebration to reality and to make reality more memorable. Music is a way to deal with oppression, to come to peace with it, a way to center the soul, to calm yourself so you can make decisions."

Hartman also reported on Thea's comments to the choirs during rehearsal, urging the singers to find their truest voices:

"There are two things I'm asking from you. I'm asking for your fine musicianship. But I'm also asking you for something that comes before that. Folks call it a primitive strength and energy. It has to come from the bottom of your feet, from the pit of your stomach, from your heart as well as your head. It has to come from all the times when somebody beat you down. Is there anybody here who doesn't know that kind of experience?"

Did you ever go to old-time, back-in-the-woods, under-the-trees type of church? The elders would draw the spirit into the church. There was something about the old folks. They would start all kinds of synapses snapping. It's a kind of strength and power, that singing, that witnessing. It grips people at a level of heart and feeling and emotion. It's complete improvisation. People who know how to do it know… That's what I want from you.

Thea explained to Hartman, "I want to remind all of us that to celebrate Martin Luther King without being real about the dream is sacrilege." She listed that beatitudes, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, as King's dream. "By living the dream, I bring joy to my life. And by living the dream, I share that joy. It's contagious. I really believe that."

With dramatic intensity, she gracefully commanded the stage, moving from the podium when she sang. Like a Toscanini, she helped "conduct" the choirs' spirited gospel songs, her own voice often soaring high above the massed chorus. Caught by her joy the audience frequently broke into sustained applause. The event was a tour de force that was only made all the stronger by her actual talk.

In it she remembered Dr. King, the true spirit of his life and of his selfless death: Martin was a man, not perfect, flawed as we are flawed, determined, dedicated. Martin was an ambassador for justice… an activist, an agitator. Call him what you will, he was willing to speak out, to march, to be jailed, to be cursed, to be spat upon, to be beaten and abused. He was willing to lay down his life for what he believed in. The grandson of a slave, he was able to talk with statesmen and politicians, the rich and the poor, the erudite and the illiterate, old people and little children, garbage men and farmers, presidents and princes. [He was] preoccupied with that struggle for freedom, strengthened by his belief that God would lead the oppressed to freedom.

She challenged the audience beyond complacency in serving the poor, in reaching out to help each other. "Think about the people who have brought you this far," she reminded them. It all ended with a quote from Dr. King: "I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altar of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive goodwill will be proclaimed the rule of the land. I still believe that we shall overcome." After the choirs and assembly sang the Civil Rights Movement hymn, "We Shall Overcome," the audience gave Thea and the assembled choirs a standing ovation. Event organizers presented red roses to Thea which she distributed to dancers and singers who joined her on stage reprising "We Shall Overcome." Thea directed the large crowd to sing today in place of someday, "we shall overcome today!"

Her rousing appearance was followed by a TV interview by Milwaukee television (Channel 10) personality Joe Smith for his "Smith and Company" program, televised Monday, January 18. Smith peppered his questions about race relations to Thea, who in turn answered succinctly, though gently. Charmingly, relentlessly she articulated her points logically, explaining improvements in civil rights yet cataloging examples of continuing injustice and discrimination toward blacks twenty years after the King assassination.

Some key excerpts from the lengthy, informative interview transcript follow:

Smith: Your impression of yesterday's Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration: where are we now?

Thea: Some people would say that the dream has become a nightmare. We have definitely moved forward in terms of following the dream of celebrating the dream. The legal machinery is in order. The nation is an institutional and constitutional reality. The validity of what King called the check has been written not only for Black people but for all people who have come here to claim the heritage and to claim the dream

Smith: But is there enough in the checking account?

Thea: There's enough in the checking account but there are - but not everybody - has access. When I say that I mean King was demonstrating for the rights of the poor. He was demonstrating for housing, fair housing and decent housing. He was demonstrating for opportunity for adequate education, and not just adequate education opportunities, but adequate education for all the children, for all the young men and women. He was demonstrating for a land where we could love one another and where we could regard one another as brothers and sisters, and. where we could work together towards solution of our common problems.

Smith: Okay, those are all the negatives. So, what are the positives? How do we get ourselves out of that situation? You are a teacher by trade who's…

Thea: That's when we get ourselves out of that situation-by demanding of ourselves, demanding of the body politic, demanding of the public sector that we put top priority-high priority-on the education of our children and of our youth.

And when I say education, I mean academic education. I mean physical education, vocational education, parenting education, moral and value education, cultural education. We need a total educational package and we need to make it available to everybody. And it's your responsibility; it's my responsibility.

How can we impact the country in such a way that we get a clear message to our elected leadership that it is this what must be?

I think to me the other priority is important. How do we say to this nation… and you hear all this conversation about people who are on welfare and who want to be on welfare? We have brilliant minds within this nation. How can we use the talent that we have to figure out a system that helps people who need help, that gives jobs to people who need jobs, that provides job training for people who need that training so that they can take advantage of a job that is in proportion to their talents? The IRS will track you down if you don't pay your taxes. Now why can't we use some of that kind of acumen--the kind of acumen that could get people into space? Why can't we use that palate and those brains to figure a welfare system that is real and that works?

Smith: And you raise some excellent questions in trying to find the answers…

Thea: And what I want to say is that every one of us has a responsibility. We need to teach the children, the little five-year olds, the little four-year olds, that they can change things. They can make life better for themselves and for their families and for their country. And that even though they can't vote at this time they can be politically active. They can be involved in participating as citizens. I think that is the teaching at all levels.

How do we teach the poor that they can change their lives? How do we raise up the young men and young women with the kind of confidence in themselves that says, 'I'm somebody! I am somebody special-even if I'm slow, even if I have a drug problem, even if my parents are gone, even if I don't have money-I'm somebody! -- and that there are resources available in my community and that I have to reach out and grab those resources? And I say that if the child is five years old, how do we teach the children?

And then there's something else. I learned because there were people outside of my family-inside my family and outside of my family-who were willing to help me, to give me a chance, to give me an opportunity.

And I know poor people who would use their money to put shoes on somebody else's child's feet, who would feed anybody who would come into the… you know. I think we have to return to some of the old value systems that say: 'If you know something, feed somebody; if you know how to read, teach somebody. If you know how to fix a car, teach somebody; if you know how to clean a room, teach somebody. If you know how to run a computer, if you're a radiologist, let somebody see. Let somebody hear what you do and try to inspire somebody-not only to take your place-but to surpass you in serving humanity. I think we could get some of these teachings.

Smith: Did you hear [Dr. King's] message when you heard him on the radio? What did you get from it?

Thea: Hope! Hope! Hope! I grew up in Mississippi. I grew up in Canton, Mississippi. I grew up under an institutionalized and legalized system of segregation and institutional racism. And for many of us it was a way of life that was unquestioned.

We didn't like it. I didn't like drinking water out of the colored fountain when the bowl was broken and the white bowl had, you know, cold water. I didn't enjoy traveling and going for miles and miles without being able to use the restrooms because the restrooms were for white people. I didn't enjoy going into the store and waiting. I came in first and I would have to wait until sixteen white people had been waited on before I had been waited on. I didn't enjoy hearing somebody called, a seventeen year old, Miss Smith, and call my mother who was in her 50s, Mary, because she was black and Miss. Smith happened to be white.

But we never thought that we could change that. We never thought that we had any power to effect any change.

And what King did for us was to help us to realize that the Constitution was on our side, that the American Dream was on our side, that there were good people, caring people, within this nation who did not know what was going on in some of these situations; that well-meaning people were doing racist things because they too were in this system that they did not question. And he (King) began to raise the questions, and he began to help us raise the questions, and he worked with the local leadership and taught us.

Smith: What was it in listening to him (King), or even going through your childhood of having to drink out of the bowl for colored people, what was it that didn't make you bitter through all of this?

Thea: …I'm from Mississippi and the people who did not learn to contain their angers and their frustrations did not live long. (Pause) You do know what I mean…you learn very early on to wear the mask. So that if I had to work with you and I felt-not that I knew-but I felt that you were racist in your heart, I learned to guard my manner, to guard my feet, even to guard my thoughts, to guard my feelings and passions and emotions. I did that not because I hated you, but because I had to survive, because I had to have a job, because my children had to walk in safety.

Smith: Do you still have to use that mask today?

Thea: Sometimes.

Smith: Sad fact, isn't it?

Thea: Yes, it's a sad fact, but it's also… it gives, it gives… .See, I walk in a number of different communities just as my Native American brothers and sisters have, my Hispanic brothers and sisters, and my Asian brothers and sisters. We have to walk in more than one world.

When I come into the world of academia, when I come into the world of business, or when I come into the world of politics or statesmanship, or into the world of international commerce or international conversation, I have to be bilingual, bi-cultural. I have to be able to talk your talk and to be able to talk it better than you can if I am going to be accepted and respected by many people in your society.

And so what we say to our children is: you have to be bi-cultural, you have to be multi-cultural, you have to learn many ways, many styles-you have to be adaptable, if you want to survive. You have to adapt your speech; you have to adapt your dress; you have to adapt your manner; you have to adapt your ways of thinking and to give us ?flexibility…

Smith: If you had not become a nun, what do you think you would be doing?

Thea: I don't know.

Smith: What would you like to do?

Thea: I'd probably be teaching. I love teaching…

Smith: What is it about teaching? Is it the molding - the shaping of the mind?

Thea: I believe - well, I like children. I think they're much more fun than adults.

Smith: Okay! So you're not having a good time here?

Thea: Oh, yeah! But, you know, a lots of adults won't play with you, but the children will. And, in a remarkable kind of way, children will believe you if you tell them your truth. Not that you have a corner on the truth, but if you tell them your truth there's that intuitive grab - the children believe you. If you love them, they will let you love them

I am attracted to the freshness and the beauty of young people. I think it is so important that they learn to value themselves before the world has a chance to beat them down. I have worked in Wisconsin, for example, with children of affluence and I have found the same kinds of insecurity and fear among some of these young people - of grade school age, of college age-as I find among the poor. They're waiting for somebody else to tell them what to think and they live in fear of what others will think of them. And they don't realize their power: their power to reach out; their power to affect change; their power to grasp happiness and freedom.

And so, I'm also convinced… see my dad was one of those people who felt that if you could read, you could do anything.

After such a high-powered, successful event in Milwaukee, what came next was shocking. The following day, back home in Mississippi, Thea was running a high fever, and her back pain was undeniable. Her pulse was racing, too. The next day she went to her doctor, who hospitalized her for recuperation and tests. That night, January 18, x-rays showed, undeniably, that her cancer had returned. She went into the seclusion of treatment. Cancer eventually overpowered Thea. She died peacefully on March 30, 1990.

Thea's death was a national event within Catholic circles and beyond. CBS rebroadcast the 1987 60 Minutes segment. The New York Times published an obituary. Of course, local media in both Wisconsin and Mississippi reported as well, as did the national Catholic press, including National Catholic Reporter and America magazine.

The New York Times obituary mentioned Thea's 1989 memorable presentation to the nation's bishops, but added, "But the work of Sister Thea, a Canton native who was the granddaughter of a slave, was far more than symbolic." The obit listed her work for intercultural awareness in Jackson, her faculty position at Xavier's Institute for Black Catholic Studies and the Thea Bowman Black Catholic Educational Foundation in Vermont as evidence of that.

Thea was buried next to her parents on Wednesday, April 4, in Elmwood Cemetery, Memphis, Tennessee. The epitaph she had requested: "She tried", was engraved on her white tombstone.

Tributes to Sister Thea came from far and wide. New York's Cardinal O'Connor was among the many who saluted her in print. In his diocesan newspaper column, he wrote, "Friedrich Nietzsche said: 'The world no longer believes because believers no longer sing.' He didn't know Sister Thea Bowman, dark nightingale. I am grateful that I did." He called her a "quintessential woman," a "quintessential religious" a "quintessential black…never a whit self-conscious… When Sister Thea talked 'soul,' I knew that most of what I had listened to before had been stereotype. For her, 'soul' was all the misery of the crucifixion and all the glory of the resurrection."

He said he suspected that no one had a "deeper understanding of the Mystical Body of Christ… Sister Thea was quintessentially a Church-woman." That's why, he said, the "bishops of the United States listened to her so raptly… There was a quiet in her suffering, a dignity, a nobility that never made light of pain, but never treated it as an impossible burden." That he compared to the crucifixion, which, he said, she accepted "as a gift beyond measure.

Contributions to Christian Education

Overview by Charlene Smith, FSPA: Thea Bowman and the Institute for Black Catholic Studies

The Institute for Black Catholic Studies (IBCS) was a new idea at Xavier University of Louisiana, a historically black university founded in 1915 by St. Katharine Drexel, SBS (Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament) canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2000. The Institute, whose pilot program started in 1980, would grow into a major center of the black Catholic movement in the United States. An article in the San Francisco Monitor (then the diocesan newspaper), reported on the beginnings of the IBCS idea, to make a permanent institution of what had, up to that time, been occasional college courses on black Catholicism: "There is no place in this country specifically geared to the Black Catholic clergy, the Black community and their needs," the paper quoted Institute founders Father Joseph R. Nearon, SSS (Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament) of Cleveland; Father Thaddeus Posey, OFM, Cap. (Order of Friars Minor, Capuchin), of Kansas City; and Sister Toinette Eugene, PBVM (Presentation of the Virgin Mary), of San Francisco."

These founding members outlined their hopes for the Institute, which would include graduate-level classes and an archival research center. The need was a for a place which would specialize in "the ways, methods and means for reaching black Catholics," Sister Eugene told the paper.

Sister Thea kept her eye on and heart in the developing institute from its beginning. She had supported the founding IBCS with Joseph Nearon, who, in the years before his sudden death in 1984, insisted on the "true truth," that is, the deepest truth, without polish. Now she was invited to serve on its faculty, a position she joyfully held from 1980 to 1988. Her specialty was training clergy, sisters and brothers who ministered in black parishes and black communities in liturgical worship and preaching.

Thea Bowman's Influence through Writing

In 1985, Sister Thea was occupied coordinating and editing articles from black and other scholars and community leaders for an important book. The bishops' U. S. Catholic Conference commissioned Thea to compile a book for ministers and others who worked in the black Catholic community.

Entitled Families Black and Catholic, Catholic and Black, the book caught on and was widely used within the black Catholic community.

The articles in the book, along with many of the charts and activities, stimulated discussions in Catholic dioceses which promoted ministry to blacks and other minority groups. People who heard Thea speak used the book to help grow her message in their daily lives and work.

Thea wrote in the book's introduction, "It assumes that the Black family is alive and well. It assumes further that we as a people need to find ways old and new to walk and talk together; to bond more surely; to extend family more widely and effectively, so that no one is fatherless, motherless, sisterless, or brotherless; so that no one lacks the life sustaining human support of family."

The book includes the thoughts and concerns of black folks of various faiths and perspectives who have thought deeply about the plight and potential of Black family; reflections of black Catholics on black family and faith, black family and Catholicism, the church and the salvation of the family, black families and the salvation of the church; and a treasure trove of resources, including facts, people, graphics, articles for reflection. All of that is followed by a more interactive offering: songs to sing and poems to meditate on; activities, images and ideas for family-building activities.

It received critical acclaim in the broader Catholic community, when it started to circulate the next year, perhaps most succinctly expressed in Peter Mara's review in Mississippi Today:

"The social sciences spend countless hours on the problems of black family life, which are quite real, but the results of such study have been meager. Those who did the research too often ignored the persistent strengths of the black community, including the strength of faith.

In this book, every problem is honestly faced, but in a different, positive spirit, confident not just that a solution must exist somewhere but that mature Christian black people themselves will supply it.

Likewise, American Catholics often regret the seeming weakness of the Catholic Church among black people, of boast of achievements some of which are in truth no better than lukewarm.

Sister Bowman's work is a cause for celebration. Just the variety and depth of the insights provided by her many authors will be informative and upbuilding for most of us.

Along with appearing on 60 Minutes, the other big story for Thea in 1987 was the publication of a seminal new African American Catholic hymnal, Lead Me, Guide Me The African American Catholic Hymnal.

The Most Reverend James, P. Lyke, OFM, Ph.D., Auxiliary Bishop of Cleveland at that time, coordinated the hymnal project. In the Preface to the book, Bishop Lyke stated, Lead Me, Guide Me is born of the needs and aspirations of Black Catholics.

Thea wrote one of the book's introductions, and was actively involved in helping to make the choices that resulted in the hymnal. In her introduction, "The Gift of African American Sacred Song," one can read much of what made Thea tick. The academic side of her succinctly explained the history of Sacred Song:

From the African Mother Continent, African men and women, through the Middle Passage, throughout the Diaspora, to the Americas, carried the African gift and treasure of sacred song. To the Americas, African men and women brought sacred songs and chants that reminded them of their homelands and that sustained them in separation and in captivity, songs to respond to all life situations, and the ability to create new songs to answer new needs.

In that introduction essay, she traced African American song from the earliest times (timelines included), through the development of the African Methodist Episcopal Hymnal (1801), the Fisk Jubilee Singers of the late nineteenth century, through Thomas Dorsey's and others' gospel music of the early 20th century. She brings in the groundbreaking work of Father Clarence Joseph Rivers, who opened the door for black sacred song in Roman Catholic worship during the liturgical reforms of the 1960's. She put words to what most people gather through experience:

Black sacred song is soulful song-

1. holistic: challenging the full engagement of mind, imagination, memory, feeling, emotion, voice, and body;

2. participatory: inviting the worshipping community to join in contemplation, in celebration and in prayer;

3. real: celebrating the immediate concrete reality of the worshipping community-grief or separation, struggle or oppression, determination or joy-bringing that reality to prayer within the community of believers;

4. spirit-filled: energetic, engrossing, intense;

5. life-giving; refreshing, encouraging, consoling, invigorating, sustaining.

In a perspicacious autobiographical statement, she speaks of the Gospel singer as one, "chosen from the people by the people to suit their immediate need: 'Sometimes I feel like a motherless child/I just came from the fountain/I love the Lord/My Heavenly Father watches over me.' The first person pronoun, the 'I' reference is communal. The individual sings the soul of the community. In heart and voice and gesture the Church, the community responds. The singer lifts the Church, the people, to a higher level of understanding, feeling, motivation, and participation.

"Song," she writes, "is not an object to be admired so much as an instrument to teach, comfort, inspire, persuade, convince, and motivate."

To the delight of Thea and all involved, Lead Me, Guide Me received wide acclaim. A hundred-thousand copies were sold during the first four years after publication. It still is used extensively in churches throughout the English-speaking world.

How others have described S. Thea Bowman: Collected by Addie Walker, SSND

Gayda Hollnagel of the La Crosse Tribune summed up Sister Thea Bowman's charism best when she wrote:

Right to the end, despite years of debilitating bone cancer, Thea was preaching, teaching and singing praise to her God.

When Thea was around, you didn't doubt there was a God. You could see him in the warm, welcoming acceptance of her eyes.

You could hear him in her clear, strong voice and in her laughter. Even with her hair gone, bald from the chemotherapy, she was a work of art in native African dress. God made her and it was all good.

She made people clap their hands and sing. Even TV newsman Mike Wallace and stodgy Roman Catholic bishops were helpless against the joy that radiated from Thea.

"Black is beautiful," Thea said. And it was so.

In Thea's eyes, white was beautiful, too. And red. And yellow. God doesn't make junk. We are all worthy.

Cepres, Celestine (Ed.). (1993). Sister Thea Bowman Shooting Star. Winona, MN: Saint Mary's Press Christian Brothers Publishing.

Sister Thea was indeed a woman of courage, a source of inspiration to the many who heard her message - a message that if God loves us so much, ought we not to love one another. Her compassion for her own people, for women, for children, and for the poor, ring loudly in the ears of all who listened - ring with a clarity that surpasses even the high C that Sister Thea reached so often with such ease and grace. Sister Thea trusted in God, prayed that she would "live until she died," and practiced the gift of thankfulness, always remembering to send a note of appreciation and thanks to the many who called, wrote, visited, or remembered her in any way.

From Sister Thea Bowman's Obituary, Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration

On June 17, 1989, less than a year before she died of bone cancer, Sister Thea Bowman, FSPA, was invited to address the American bishops… She began her address by singing the Negro spiritual Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, then humbly asked the bishops to help her and other marginalized people find their rightful place in the church.

Visibly moved, the bishops responded to her invitation by linking arms to sing We Shall Overcome. One bishop later commented, "At a time of much division in the church, Sister Thea possessed the charismatic gifts to heal, to bring joy to the church. She had no time for useless, destructive arguments. She was too busy celebrating life."

Broughton, Jill. (2003, February). Home at last, the legacy of Sister Thea Bowman. The Word Among Us, 53-59.

We do not know how history will finally situate Sister Thea Bowman among its panoply of significant figures who made a lasting impact on the lives of others … [Her] legacy is likely to be far richer and more broadly-based than now appears-not only for African Americans, nor only for religious and lay women, but for many, many others as well, both inside and outside the Catholic community of faith.

Richard McBrien, Professor of Theology, Notre Dame University.


Books by Thea Bowman

  • Bowman, Thea, FSPA. (Ed.). (1985). Families: Black and Catholic, Catholic and Black. Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference.
  • Bowman, Thea, FSPA. (1989). Justice, Power, and Praise. In E. Grosz (Ed.) Liturgy and Social Justice: Celebrating Rites (pp. 26-39). Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.

Articles by Thea Bowman

  • Bowman, Thea, FSPA. (1990, March). Let Me Live Until I Die. Reader's Digest, 88.
  • Bowman, Thea, FSPA. (1987, March/April). Let the Church Say "Amen". Extension 10-11.
  • Bowman, Thea, FSPA. (1988, Spring). Sister Thea: Ambassador of Good News. FSPA Perspectives, 8-9.
  • Bowman, Thea, FSPA. (1989, July 6). To Be Black and Catholic. Origins, 19, 114-118.
  • Bowman, Thea, FSPA. (Fall 1989). Forged by Our History: A Cultural Perspective. Horizon: Journal of the National Religious Vocation Conference 15, no. 1, 8-12.
  • Bowman, Thea, FSPA. (Spring-Summer 1989). Black History and Culture. U.S. Catholic Historian 7, nos. 2 & 3, 307-310.
  • Cepress, Celestine, FSPA. (Ed.) (1993). Sister Thea Bowman, Shooting Star: Selected Writings and Speeches. Winona, MN: Saint Mary's Press Christian Brothers Publications.

Publications About Thea Bowman: Books

  • Brown, Joseph, SJ. (1997). Leaning on the Lord: A Retreat with Thea Bowman and Bede Abram. Cincinnati, OH: St. Anthony Messenger Press.
  • Coffey, Kathy (2005). Women of Mercy. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books. 2005.
  • Ellsberg, Robert. (1999). All Saints. New York: Crossroad Publishing.
  • Ellsberg, Robert. (2005). Blessed Among All Women. New York: Crossroad Publishing.
  • Grigsby, Daryl. (2007). In Their Footsteps: Inspirational Reflections on Black History for Every Day of the Year. Skokie, IL: ACTA Publications.
  • Graham, M. (Ed.) (2002). Conversations with Margaret Walker. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.
  • Gschwind, M. (1993). Bowman, Sister Thea (1937-1990). In D. Hine (Ed.), Black Women in America, An Historical Encyclopedia . Brooklyn, NY: Carlson Publishing.
  • Hill, Brennan. (2007). Thea Bowman: Freedom from Prejudice. In 8 Freedom Heroes: Changing the World with Faith. Cincinnati, OH: St. Anthony Messenger Press.
  • Hine, D. (Ed.). (1993). Bowman, Sister Thea (1937-1990). In Black Women In America: An Historical Encyclopedia (pp155-157). Brooklyn, NY: Carlson Publishing.
  • Koontz, Christian, RSM. (1991). Thea Bowman: Handing on Her Legacy. Kansas City, MO: Sheed & Ward.
  • Macmillan Profiles. (2000). Religious Leaders of the World. 150 Profiles of Significant Spiritual Leaders Worldwide from Ancient Times to the Present. Woodbridge, CT: Macmillan Reference.
  • Mattern, Evelyn and Brancato, Helen. (1999). Why Not Become Fire? Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press.
  • McCrane, Janice, SSJ. (2006). Thea: Our Companion in Joy-Filled Suffering. In Saints to Lean On: Spiritual Companions for Illness and Disability. Cincinnati, OH: St. Anthony Messenger Press.
  • Meehan, Bridget Mary. (1999). Praying with Visionary Women. Lanham, MD: Sheed and Ward.
  • O'Brien, Richard. (2001). Lives of the Saints. New York: Harper.
  • Porter, Jeanne. (2000). Leading Ladies: Transformative Biblical Images for Women's Leadership. Philadelphia: Innisfree Press.
  • Proud to Call Mississippi Home Mississippi in Words and Pictures with Introduction by Morgan Freeman. Jackson, MI: Image Publishing, Inc. 2006.
  • Stanton, Sue. (2004). Great Women of Faith: Inspiration for Action. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.
  • U.S. Bishops.(2006). United States Catholic Catechism for Adults. Washington, D.C.: USCCB Publishing. (See Chapter 8). Available on CD. Spanish edition 2008.
  • Zagano, Phyllis. (1999). Twentieth Century Apostles. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.

Publications About Thea Bowman: Articles

  • A Final Farewell to Sister Thea Bowman. (1990, Fall). Viterbo Strides, 6-7.
  • Ball, Judy. (1989, January). A Woman Wrapped in Courage. Mustard Seed 6, 1-2.
  • Bauer, Pam. (1984, January). Invitation to Sing. Extension, 78, 5-12.
  • Black History and Culture, 1880 - 1987. (1988). U.S. Catholic Historian, 7 (2 & 3), 307 – 310.
  • Bookser-Feister, John. (1985, August). Sister Thea Teaches Cultural Awareness. Cornerstone, 38-42.
  • Bookser-Feister, John. (1985, July). I Am Beautiful, You Are Beautiful: Thea Bowman's Ministry of Joy. St. Anthony Messenger, 93, 29-33.
  • Bookser-Feister, John. (1989, April – May) We Are All Children of God. Extension, 83, 24-27.
  • Brent, Peggy. (1992, February). Remembering Sister Thea. Teaching English in the Two-Year College, 19, 15-17.
  • Broughton, J. (2003, February). Home At Last: The Legacy of Sister Thea Bowman. The Word Among Us, 53-59.
  • Browining, C. (1989, November/December). Trusting the Prophetic All: Thea Bowman, FSPS. Creation, 5 (5), 19-21.
  • Donnelly, Mary Queen. (1990, April 28). In Memoriam: Sister Thea Bowman (1937-1990). America, 420-421.
  • Fox, Tom. (1990, April 13). Shooting Star' Bowman's Gone Home. National Catholic Repoter, 19.
  • Francis, Joseph A.. (1990, April 29). A Sister Who Could Fly Higher Than Any Eagle. Our Sunday Visitor, 19.
  • Giaimo, Donna William. (1989, February). A Song in Her Soul. The Family, 20-22.
  • Healy, M. (1990, Spring). Lessons in Lyrical Voices From an Old Folks' Child. Common Life, 4-10.
  • Hevesi, Dennis, (1990, April 1). Sister Thea Bowman, 52, Worker for Catholic Sharing with Blacks. The New York Times.
  • Holton, Robert. (1989, July 2). Sister Thea Bowman: Portrait of Faith, Courage. Our Sunday Visitor, 6-7.
  • Jennings, M (2005, July). A Shining Light: Sister Thea Bowman. Columbia, 20-21.
  • Jones, Arthur. (1988, September 9). She Sings a Ululu Song That Began in Africa. National Catholic Reporter, 4.
  • Let the Church say, "Amen!" (1987, March/April). Extension, 10-11.
  • McManus, James. (1989, October 27). Bishops Help Launch Thea Bowman Foundation. National Catholic Reporter, 3.
  • O'Connor, John. (1990, April 5). Quintessential Woman. Catholic New York, 5.
  • Rathburn, R. (1988, Spring). I am a part of all that I have met: An Interview with Thea Bowman, FSPA. FSPA Perspectives, 3-4.
  • Sister Thea: Ambassador of Good News. (1988, Spring). FSPA Perspectives, 8-9.
  • Taylor, F. (1989, November/December). Lord, let me live till I die. Praying, 33, 19-22.
  • Thea Bowman Foundation Launches $150 Million College Scholarship Fund. (1989, November 6). Jet, 27.
  • To Be Black and Catholic. (1989) Origins, 19 (8), 113-118.
  • Tuohy, P. (1990, June). Sister Thea Bowman: On the Road to Glory. U.S. Catholic, 55, 20-26.

Electronic Media by and About Thea Bowman

  • Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. Thea News. Retrieved March 28, 2008 from
  • Hartman, Irene, OP. Sister Thea Bowman, FSPA 1937 – 1990. Retrieved March 28, 2008 from
  • Hevesi, Dennis. (1990) Sister Thea Bowman, 52, Worker for Catholic Sharing with Blacks (Electronic Version). New York Times, April 4, 1990. retrieved March 28, 2008 from
  • Luie, S. (1998). Tribute to Sister Thea Bowman. Retrieved March 28, 2008 from
  • McBrien, Richard. (2007). Karl Rahner and Thea Bowman (Electronic Version) Tidings Online retrieved March 28, 2008.
  • Method X The Life> Saints, Inc.. Retrieved on March 28, 2008 from
  • Sister Thea Bowman's Funeral Reported on WLBT. (4/3/90) Retrieved on March 28, 2008 from
  • Smith, Charlene, FSPA. Thea Bowman, FSPA, Shining a Light Across Cultures. Retrieved March 28, 2008 from
  • Thea Bowman from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.. Retrieved March 28, 2008 from
  • Thea Bowman. Retrieved March 28, 2008 from
  • Thea Bowman. Retrieved March 28, 2008 from
  • Victoria Marie, OSF. Sr. Thea Bowman, FSPA: Franciscan, Troubadour, Prophet, Poet. Retrieved April 11, 2007 from


  • Almost Home: Living with Suffering and Dying. Liguori, MO: Liguori Publishing Co., 1989. Audiocassette.
  • Are You Walkin' With Me? University, MS: Center for the Study of Southern Culture, 1990. Videocassette.
  • Black History and Culture in the Works of William Faulkner. University, MS: Center for the Study of Southern Culture, 1986. Videocassette.
  • Old-Time Religion. Loveland, OH: Treehaus Communications, 1988. Four videocassettes.
  • Sister Thea: Her Own Story. Belleville, IL: Oblate Media and Communications, 1991. Videocassette.
  • Sister Thea: Round the Glory Manger. Boston: Krystal Records, 1989. Audiocassette.
  • Sister Thea: Songs of My People. Boston: Krystal Records, 1989. Audiocassette.

Collections and Resources

  • In spring 2001, FutureChurch in partnership with Call to Action developed Celebrating Women Witnesses. This publication features essays and prayer services celebrating 12 holy women. Included, among others, are Mary of Nazareth, Clare of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, Dorothy Day and Thea Bowman! Available ($10 packet) at (tel) 216.228.0869 or (e)
  • The Josephites Archives, 1130 N. Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD 21202-3802. 1-410-727-3386 ext. 100, Fax 1-410-385-2331
  • Thea Bowman, FSPA (1937-1990) Archival Collection, FSPA Archives, La Crosse, Wisconsin Tel: 608.791.5619. Email:
  • Thea Bowman Foundation. 912 Market Street, La Crosse, WI 54601. Tel: 608.782.5610. Websites: , or , 1-608-788-6622.
  • Thea Bowman, FSPA (1937-1990) Art and Artifact Collection, FSPA Heritage Collection, La Crosse, Wisconsin Tel: 608.794.2288 x243. Email:
  • Thea Bowman, FSPA (1937-1990) Book Collection, St. Rose Convent Media Center, La Crosse, Wisconsin Tel: 608.791.5619. Email:
  • The Sister Thea Bowman Foundation Website:>

Unpublished Thesis

  • Engle, Joyce Ann, SSND. (1991). Believing is Seeing: A Man Born Blind and a Seeing Woman (John 9:1 - 10:21). Submitted to the Faculty of the Maryknoll School of Theology, Maryknoll, New York.

Excerpts from Publications

Cepress, Celestine, FSPA (Ed.). (1993). Sister Thea Bowman, Shooting Star: Selected Writings and Speeches. Winona, MN: Saint Mary's Press Christian Brothers Publications. (pp. 43-44).

"When I was a child in Canton, Mississippi, my people sang the songs of faith-songs of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Moses, David and Jesus. The songs of faith were passed on, taught, learned, and prayed in an environment of love and celebration.
I did not realize I was receiving a religious education-that I was being taught prayer, salvation history, morals and values, faith, hope, love, and joy. I did not realize that the songs would form the basis of my lifelong religious education and the catalyst that would impel me to seek books and classes, exegesis and explication de texte in my eagerness to know and understand more of the Words of Salvation. I did not know that I was being taught modes of prayer that would increasingly enrich my personal prayer, community prayer, liturgical prayer; modes of prayer that I have been privileged to share with my brothers, sisters, and children of diverse races and culture, economic backgrounds, and religions." (pp. 43-44)
"As I age I continue to grow in understanding of the lessons based upon the songs of faith.
The methodologies were as modern as today's. Teaching the songs of faith required definite cognitive, affective, and behavioral objectives, use of right and left brain teaching-learning techniques; participatory learning; reality-based learning; value learning; multi-sensory appeal; involvement of intellect, memory, imagination, will and body. The methodologies are simple and engaging." (pp. 50-51)

Bowman, Sister Thea, FSPA (1987). The gift of African American Sacred Song. In Lead Me, Guide Me The African American Catholic Hymnal. Chicago: G.I.A. Publications, Inc.

"African Americans in sacred song preserved the memory of African religious rites and symbols, of a holistic African spirituality, of rhythms and tones and harmonies that communicated their deepest feelings across barriers of region and language."

Bowman, Sister Thea, FSPA (1987). The gift of African American Sacred Song. In Lead Me, Guide Me The African American Catholic Hymnal. Chicago: G.I.A. Publications, Inc.

"Black sacred song celebrates our God, His goodness, His promise, our faith and hope, our journey toward the promise.
Black sacred music lifts up Biblical symbols which bear the accumulated meanings of four hundred years of experience of the Black community in America."

Bowman, Sister Thea, FSPA. (Ed.) (1985). Families Black and Catholic, Catholic and Black. Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference (p. 11).

"[We] maintain and strengthen Black rootedness, Black traditions and rituals whereby faith and values are transmitted and celebrated in family, in extended family, in intimate person-to-person exchange… Faith and values are transmitted and celebrated in causal conversation, in reminiscence and testimony, on song and dance, and in ritual and story." (p. 11)
"Look at the word family. See how the life of community and Church radiate from family. If we nurture faith, values, and love in the family, then we can nurture faith, values, and love in the community and the Church.
Traditions and rituals that embody that faith, values, and love have to be worked on, and so we have family histories, memories, prayer, and catechesis, and celebrations as well as family dreams, goals, and plans. In faith we remember our history; we remember that we've come this far by faith. We celebrate that faith in our liturgies. We pass on our values when we dream and plan and work together. We celebrate the love we bear for one another in family fun, being together, enjoying one another, and in family ministry. We minister to our family, we minister within our family, we minister within the Black community. We, as church, minister to our brothers and sisters, wherever we find them.
Family is the basic raw material from which community and Church can be formed. Family is the model of Church." (p. 64).

Bowman, Thea, FSPA. (Ed.) (1985). Families: Black and Catholic, Catholic and Black. Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference.

Cepress, Celestine, FSPA. (Ed.) (1993). Sister Thea Bowman, Shooting Star: Selected Writings and Speeches. Winona, MN: Saint Mary's Press Christian Brothers Publications.

Hine, D. (Ed.) (1993). Bowman, Sister Thea (1937-1990). In Black Women In America: An Historical Encyclopedia (pp155-157). Brooklyn, NY: Carlson Publishing.

Author Information

Addie Lorraine Walker

Addie Lorraine Walker, SSND is the Provincial Leader of the Dallas Province of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, an international Congregation of Catholic sisters. She completed her doctoral studies at Boston College earning a PhD in Religion and Education. In addition to being the Provincial Leader of the Dallas Province, she is an adjunct faculty member of Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX and Xavier University in New Orleans, LA. She was a personal friend, student, and colleague of Sister Thea Bowman.

Charlene Smith

Charlene Smith, FSPA, recently retired from serving as coordinator for the Thea Bowman Legacy program 2000-2008. She was a friend and colleague of Thea Bowman's and is treasurer for the Thea Bowman Black Catholic Education Foundation and member of the board of directors.