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Soulful Sister Thea Bowman; the spirit of African song and story lighting the world

The recent vandalism at Belmont Street School in Worcester brings to mind that the struggle for racial equality in America is not quite over. With a population of mostly minorities, such inner city schools still suffer under what has become a more abstract prejudice; one which is perhaps more difficult to address.

Sister Thea Bowman
Sr. Thea Bowman Foundation

Yet one story of an American nun from the Deep South could shine a light of hope, albeit a small one, on such circumstances. It is the story of Sister Thea Bowman.

Bertha Bowman was born in a small rural town in Central Mississippi in 1937. Though her grandfather was a slave, her father and mother were educated professionals; a physician and a teacher respectively. Hence, when, early in Bertha’s childhood they recognized the decrepit condition of the school that their only child attended they took action.

Although they were devout Methodists, they sent her to the local Catholic school staffed by the Franciscan Sisters of the Perpetual Adoration. Thence, by the age of ten little Bertha was converted to Catholicism.

Slim and strikingly beautiful, as a young woman Bertha could have aspired to be many things; a fashion model perhaps, or, with her talent for acting out stories, an actress. Certainly her resonant voice could have rivaled the best pop singers then and now.

But instead, much to the disappointment and heart-ache of her parents, at age fourteen, she decided that her call was to leave her home and become a nun.

Her father, especially, would not hear of it. After all, she was his only child.

So, she went on a hunger strike.

In 1953 she joined her educators, the Franciscan Sisters, and moved to their home-base, St. Rose convent, in Wisconsin. There Bertha became Sister Thea.

“At the time there were only about five black people in Wisconsin,” joked a fellow sister in an interview.

But Thea's exuberance for the beauty of her African culture, especially through song, and her genuine love for people soon won the hearts and minds of the entire community.

“It was a joy to sit beside her because her singing was so beautiful” a friend remembered, “she sang from her spirit.”

Even when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 47 that spirit never flailed. Donning traditional African dress, her grace and radiance became an even brighter luminance into the world as, with her declining health, she continued preaching and teaching from a wheelchair.

“Sometimes people think they have to do big things in order to make change,” Sr. Thea preached, “but if each one would light a candle we'd have a tremendous light.”

Sister Thea died in 1990 at the age of 52. But in her short life her list of accomplishments lends evidence to her philosophy that little lights add up to mega-brilliance.

During her sixteen years of teaching school she accumulated rewards and degrees, including a B.A. in English, Speech and Drama from Viterbo College in La Crosse, Wisconsin; an M.A. in English and a Ph.D. in English Language, Literature, and Linguistics both from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

Most notably, Sr. Thea became the first African-American woman to receive a Doctorate in Theology from Boston College.

After her diagnosis several institutions presented her with an Honorary Doctorate including a few from New England: Regis College, Clarke College, Xavier University (New Orleans), Sacred Heart University, College of Our Lady of the Elms, Boston College, Georgetown University, Saint Michael’s College, Marygrove College, Viterbo College and Spring Hill College.

Even beyond death, the accolades continue, as schools and campus residences all over the country bear her name. What’s more, some believe that Sister Thea should be considered for sainthood.

But it all began in a poor school district. And not every child in such circumstances has the chance to escape those disheartening conditions. The Sister Thea Bowman foundation, of which Dr. Francesco Cesareo, President of Assumption College is a board member, seeks to provide African-Americans that chance for a better life through Catholic higher education.

But never were these prestigious honors the intention of her heart. As the end of her life approached, Sr. Thea was asked how she would like to be remembered.

“That I tried,” was her simple response, “I tried to love the world.”

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