Thea Bowman, FSPA
December 29, 1937 - March 30, 1990
December 29, 1937 - March 30, 1990
Sister 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 Washington, DC. Rooted in her cultural traditions and faith, then living as religious sister and in her ministry as teacher, Sister 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.
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 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. Sister 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.
Tribute prepared by Addie Lorraine Walker & Charlene Smith