Religious sister, educator, lecturer, vocalist, evangelist; b. Bertha Bowman in Yazoo City, Mississippi, Dec. 29, 1937; d. Canton, Mississippi, March 30, 1990. In August of 1953, at the age of 15, Bowman entered the formation program of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She graduated from Viterbo College in La Crosse and then pursued graduate studies in English literature and linguistics at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. She wrote her dissertation on St. Thomas more's Dialogue of Comfort and received her doctorate in 1972.
Sister Thea taught in elementary schools in La Crosse and Canton; from 1971 to 1978 she taught English literature at Viterbo College. During this period, she began offering programs and workshops to foster cultural and racial awareness and openness, working especially with international students and the Winnebago Native American people. In 1978, the bishop of Jackson, Mississippi, Joseph Brunini, asked her to return to Mississippi and work with the diocesan intercultural program.
In 1980, Sister Thea helped establish the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans. The first of its kind, the summer graduate institute sought to meld the Catholic tradition with the burgeoning scholarship of the African American community. Sister Thea brought to the institute her expertise in linguistics and aesthetics, as well as a profound knowledge of African American culture and tradition. As a faculty member she created a series of courses and liturical celebrations that helped form numerous pastors, pastoral ministers, religious education directors, and theology students from diverse ethnic and cultural groups. For almost a decade before being incapacitated by cancer, she traveled throughout the country, preaching and singing, giving workshops, lectures, and programs, and urging people to celebrate their own heritage, their own gifts, and their own beauty. Turning to African Americans of all ages but especially to children, she stressed the need for them to celebrate their ethnicity, their ancestors, and their faith. She celebrated her own Catholic faith and made contributions to the emerging consciousness of black Catholics by calling them to be both true to their heritage and their Catholic faith. A high point was the address she delivered from her wheelchair to the United States bishops assembled at Seton Hall University in June of 1989, in which she spoke to them of their need to reach out to all peoples but especially to African Americans, and to value the distinctive cultural gifts of all peoples.
Two years before her death she made her second and last trip to Africa. She continued to travel, to speak, and to sing, despite her exhaustion and frailty. Vocalist as well as lecturer, she was extremely ill when she made two audiocassette recordings: Sister Thea: Songs of My People (1988) and Round the Glory Manger (1989) (Krystal Records, Daughters of St. Paul). In her final days she drew upon her reserves of strength and joy to become a living testimony to courage in the face of death and love in the face of divisions. She was posthumously awarded the Laetare Medal by the University of Notre Dame in the spring of 1990.
Bibliography: t. bowman, "Spirituality: The Soul of the People," in Tell It Like It Is: A Black Catholic Perspective on Christian Education (Oakland 1983) 837–95. t. bowman, ed., Families: Black and Catholic, Catholic and Black (Washington 1985); "Black History and Culture," U.S. Catholic Historian 7(1988) 307–310. c. cepress, ed., Sister Thea Bowman Shooting Star: Selected Writings and Speeches (Winona, MN 1993). c. koontz, ed., Thea Bowman: Handing on Her Legacy (Kansas City, MO 1991).