Sr. Thea Bowman left everything she knew
in Canton, Mississippi,
to follow God’s call. The first Black woman to join the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in La Crosse, Bowman came to Wisconsin as a teenager. (Photo credit: https://www. sister-thea-bowman)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

In July of 1989, Sr. Thea Bowman, FSPA, the African American Catholic religious sister who championed the integration of her culture and creed, addressed the bishops of the United States.

Sr. Thea began her message in a way characteristic of her fully Black, fully Catholic style – spirited song.

Responding to her own stated question, “What does it mean to be Black in the Church and society?” Bowman closed her eyes and began to sing the slave spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”

“Can you hear me, church? Can you help me, church?” she called out before singing the final notes.

“What a woman, what a gift! A mover and a shaker,” is how Sr. Marla Lang, Bowman’s classmate in the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration’s high school program, described her.

Sr. Marla, outreach coordinator for the Marywood Franciscan Spirituality Center in Arbor Vitae, offered a virtual presentation on Sr. Thea Bowman in mid-August, which included her own life experiences, videos of Sr. Thea and sharing of participants’ experiences.

Sr. Marla was honored to visit Sr. Thea’s home diocese of Jackson, Mississippi, in June 2018, when Sr. Thea was declared a Servant of God by the local bishop, the first step in the canonization process.

During that trip, Sr. Marla accepted an invitation to visit Sr. Thea’s hometown of Canton, about 30 miles from Jackson.

As they arrived at Canton’s welcome center, Lang noticed a road sign for Highway 51. Curious, she asked her guide if it could be the same Highway 51 of her home address in northern Wisconsin. It was, and the road had once been a major U.S. route running from New Orleans to the Michigan-Wisconsin state line between Hurley and Ironwood, although much of it is now co-signed with interstates I-55 and I-39.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Sr. Marla said of realizing there was a direct connection between the two places.

The woman then pointed out the auction block across the road. It took her a minute to realize what the guide meant. It was the spot where slaves were bought and sold in Canton.

Sr. Marla asked to stay behind for a few private moments. She reflected, “It really struck me so deeply and I thought, here we are – seeing this whole turn of events taking place.”

“It did something to my own thoughts about how easily we can forget our history. We can forget how that impacts people’s lives,” she added, wondering how many times young Thea had walked past the invisible monument to what her grandparents lived through.

Just months later, in November 2018, at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting, Sr. Thea’s cause of canonization was unanimously approved, beginning the formal process toward sainthood.

Not quite 30 years earlier, Sr. Thea had come before that same assembly. Her presentation about being Black and Catholic in America coincided with bishops’ renewed effort to eradicate racist attitudes and behaviors in the church.

Addressing the bishops, Sr. Thea reminded them, “My people didn’t come over on the Mayflower, they came over here on slave ships, in chains.”

She continued, enumerating the gifts and treasures her enslaved ancestors brought to the American continent. She recalled how her people helped to build the nation, defend the nation, raise the nation’s children – even their white masters’ children – and the deprivation and discrimination they continued to experience through poverty, lack of quality education and opportunity.

“What does it mean to be Black and Catholic?” Bowman asked again. “For many of us, it means having been evangelized, having been educated, having been given a chance through the work of the Catholic Church,” she said recalling the priests and religious and lay people “who cared, who came and who worked with and for us and among us, and helped us to help ourselves.”

Sr. Thea declared it was time for Black Catholics to be evangelizers of themselves, to have their gifts and passion embraced and to share a spirituality that finds joy even in the midst of suffering.

Young Thea Bowman had been educated by Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Canton. Their arrival was in response to a request for quality education for Black children. Thea, the only child of the town doctor and a teacher, both Protestants, wanted that opportunity to learn.

At the age of 9, she asked her parents’ permission to become Catholic. Some years after, Bowman told them she wanted to go north to Wisconsin to study with the nuns and join the order. She felt a strong call to religious life, to teach the way she had been taught.

In a video recorded in the last months of the sister’s life, she shared, “It was not liturgy that drew me … but the witness of Catholic Christians doing for others.”

Sr. Marla – who had come to the program after two years of high school in Merrill – recalls how “unusually gifted” Thea was, how articulate in their classes, and how beautifully the young woman would sing her people’s folk music.

“She wanted to do her very best,” Sr. Marla noted, “and she used her gifts in a very engaging way.”

It was the early 1950s, and Sr. Thea was the first Black person Lang had ever met. She recounted the first family visit both she and Sr. Thea received in La Crosse – Sr. Marla’s parents coming from their dairy farm in Marathon, and Sr. Thea’s traveling from Canton.

The young women were in the chapel for the community’s vespers service as their parents arrived. When Sr. Marla greeted her family and didn’t see her father, her mother explained he was detained visiting another classmate’s parents.

When he finally came to greet her, Sr. Marla’s father shared how impressed he was by the Black man whose daughter was in her class. He called him “a remarkable man” and looked forward to future visits.

This first impression left a mark on young Marla.

“I love my father deeply and really cherished whatever he would say,” Sr. Marla said, and thought, “I gotta get to know Thea myself better, because my Dad thinks an awful lot of her dad, so she must come from a very wonderful family.”

From that point on, she wanted to get to know her classmate.

Sr. Marla noted some key factors that she sees in Sr. Thea’s life: The modeling of wonderful parents whose love was invested in their daughter; the dynamic connections within her cultural community; and the love and support of the FSPA sisters in her education, both in Mississippi and Wisconsin.

In those nurturing environments, Sr. Thea’s own gifts blossomed and were then shared with hundreds and thousands throughout the country and the world.

Sr. Thea had a clear sense of her uniqueness, Sr. Marla said. While her cultural heritage was not always fully appreciated or understood – even seen as threatening at a time when efforts towards racial integration were still nascent – the nun didn’t allow it to discourage her.

Sr. Marla recalled Sr. Thea hiding under a bed when a white policeman came to the door. Coming from a segregated society, she would habitually duck in a car when traveling with her white FSPA sisters.

Sr. Thea’s conviction for her vocational call helped her deal with the cold weather, racial ignorance and unfamiliar food of the north, even though she missed her community and culture, the vitality, song and food.

Sr. Marla affirmed how Sr. Thea pushed through the negativity that could have been part of her life. In a class of 19, the young woman’s “terrific passion” stood out, because of her willingness to cooperate with God’s call and the gifts she’d been given.

Her superiors noticed Sr. Thea’s giftedness, and they desired to give her opportunities. After finishing her degree at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Sr. Thea studied for a master’s degree and doctorate at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

Sr. Thea’s years in the nation’s capital in the 1960s allowed her to meet other Black sisters and clergy, to explore what it meant to be Black and Catholic in America.

As much as Sr. Thea is quoted saying “I like being my black self,” her aspiration towards integration was not about unity that dissolved diversity; rather, one where each culture’s characteristics remain intact and all are enriched.

Among the August 2020 presentation participants’ personal stories were some shared by Lang’s own sister, Sr. Eileen Lang.

Sr. Eileen remembered some of her own interactions with the Servant of God and the impressions she made.

“Are you with me, church?” With that phrase, Sr. Thea would make crowds come alive at speaking engagements. The loud cheers of “amen” exemplified the soulful celebration Bowman felt was missing in much of the church’s acts, Sr. Eileen said.

Sr. Eileen also shared memories of Bowman after her breast cancer diagnosis in 1984, the same year both of her parents died. Vowing to live until she died, “she still did whatever she did with vitality.”

She said that when people met Sr. Thea, they remembered how she had made them feel – loved, gifted, called.

“Holiest lady I ever met,” another participant Ron Eyer stated.

Eyer shared about an interaction he’d had accompanying Sr. Thea on the guitar. She commented that he played very well – for a white guy – except that he didn’t play the music “in between the notes”.

He had another touching story from a time Bowman was hospitalized from the cancer. Eyer visited her and said that giving the nun a kiss on the forehead was the only physical greeting that didn’t hurt her. Talking together Eyer asked about fond memories from her childhood.

Grape popsicles, Sr. Thea said. She had always loved grape popsicles.

Eyer left the hospital in search of the nun’s simple pleasure. A few stores into his search, realizing grape popsicles were only sold as part of a box of assorted flavors, he purchased six boxes so he could take back to the “sweetheart” sister an entire box of her favorite childhood treat.

An active and dynamic man during the years he knew Bowman, a stroke has left Eyer without use of his left side. Now living in a nursing home in Ironwood, MI, the way she lived through her own suffering is an inspiration for Eyer as he faces his own.

One of Eyer’s friends Betty Perkis also joined in on the call. A former Catholic school teacher and catechist, Perkis learned about Bowman when Eyer shared his stories and books about the modern-day witness of faith for her to use as a real life role model for her students.

What stands out most to her is Sr. Thea’s joy and the powerful example of the decision to “live until I die” that Bowman consistently renewed.

“We should be a joyful people,” Perkis said. “We’re supposed to be sharing Good News!”

Sr. Marla recalled her last phone call with Sr. Thea. It was Christmas 1989, just a few months before passed away in her parents’ home in Canton at the age of 52.

“Did my life make any difference at all?” Sr. Thea wondered. It pained her spirit not to have enough years of life to fulfill her desires for teaching and preaching. Sr. Thea’s grieving the shortness of her life has influenced Sr. Marla to be more aware of consciously making the most of each day.

Sr. Marla quoted her friend, saying, “I know that I am weak and God is strong … When I go before judgment, I want to say I have really tried and I have done my best.”

For her, the heart of the matter is, “No matter how little or how great the gifts I have received are, I have a calling to use my gifts for others.”

Following the example of Sr. Thea, she said, “It’s every person I meet and work with. To bring my best self to help others.

“Because I have been loved, I hope to love others in return.”