Thea Bowman and Her Fight for Racial Justice
Years ago Fr. Hallinan took a group of us to paint the interior of St. Aloysius School in Harlem. Impressed with the school, I became an annual donor and received yearly reports showing smiling children, sometimes with a reference to Thea Bowman. When the school closed in 2016, reminders of Sr. Thea faded away. Lately, I wondered which African-Americans the church has recognized and came across Thea Bowman’s name. Her fight for racial justice and her joy in God and in life inspire me, so I want to share her story with you.
In 1989, Sr. Thea Bowman, teacher, preacher, singer, evangelist, author, vocal critic of racism addressed and challenged the USCCB to accept her bringing “my whole self, my Black self, all that I am, all that I have, all that I hope to become. I bring my whole history, my traditions, my experience, my culture … and give it to the church.” She reminded them that “Black Catholic Christians often feel like 2nd or 3rd class citizens in the holy city … until they take their place in the leadership.“ She started her address by singing “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”. She ended with bishops, arms locked together with her, singing “We Shall Overcome”. Some bishops had tears in their eyes.
In her address to the bishops, Thea answers her own question: “What does it mean to be Black and Catholic?” She makes me wonder what does it mean to be white and Catholic. Do I bring my whole self to the church? Do I encourage others to bring their whole selves? Do my actions invite people who are not white to share the pew with me?
Thea Bowman earned a doctorate in English from Catholic University and taught elementary school, high school, and college. Her grandfather was a slave, father a doctor, and mother a teacher. Reared in Mississippi, Thea’s Methodist family sent her to Catholic school. She converted to Catholicism and became the first Black nun in her order.
Many schools awarded her honorary doctorates, including Boston College, Georgetown, and Xavier University of Louisiana.
Here is a clip of Bowman, dying from cancer and restricted to a wheelchair, addressing the bishops: Watch the video
– Laura De Boisblanc, Parishioner