By Maureen Smith
JACKSON – A Jackson-based foundation will honor Sister Thea Bowman, FSPA, as one of five women of courage during their Women’s History Month gala with the theme “Women of Courage and Strength: nevertheless, she persisted.” The Connecting the Dots Foundation raises money to support other non-profits. This gala will support scholarships and historic preservation.
Sister Thea will be honored for her work to advance the appreciation of diversity within the faith community. Among the other women to be honored at the gala: Dr. Helen Barnes, the first African American woman on faculty at the University of Mississippi Medical Center; Eliza Pillars, the first African American public health nurse; Beth Orlansky, an attorney with the Mississippi Center for Justice; and Pam Johnson, author and community activist.
The Diocese of Jackson is one of the sponsors of the event which is set for Saturday, March 24, at 6 p.m. at the downtown Jackson Marriott. Tickets are $100 each. Those who wish to support the event, but cannot attend can donate tickets for local students to use. Dress is formal. Tickets are available through the Ticketmaster service by calling (800) 745-3000. For sponsorship details call Marilyn Luckett at (601) 813-5045.
By Maureen Smith
JACKSON – Bishop Joseph Kopacz has appointed Redemptorist Father Maurice Nutt to begin researching the life, writings and works of Sister Thea Bowman, FSPA, in what may well be her first step on the road to sainthood. Father Nutt will travel to and from his home in New Orleans to the Diocese of Jackson for the time being.
This does not officially open a cause for canonization, but is a preliminary step prior to opening a cause. Since February is Black History Month, the appointment seems all that much more timely.
Sister Thea, the granddaughter of a slave, was born Bertha Bowman in 1937 in Yazoo City. Her family moved to Canton where she enrolled in Holy Child Jesus school. She decided to become Catholic at the age of nine. A few years later she asked to join the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration and became the first African-American member of the order.
Sister Thea was a gifted teacher and vocalist. She earned a doctorate in literature and traveled the world – taking students to England and visiting Africa to connect with her own heritage. As she taught, sang and experienced life, she began to form a theology of diversity and inclusion that would become the hallmark of her public life. The late Bishop William Houck invited her to be a consultant for intercultural awareness in the Diocese of Jackson. Even while working in Mississippi, Sister Thea traveled the country teaching workshops on music and speaking about the importance of diversity in the church. Her influence both in and outside of the church was tremendous. She appeared on the television newsmagazine 60 Minutes. Harry Belefonte met with her in hopes of producing a movie about her life. She was one of the most sought-after speakers in the country.
She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1984. As the cancer worked its way into her bones, she continued to maintain a grueling travel schedule, praying to ‘live until I die.’ One of her last public appearances, delivered from a wheelchair, was speaking to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. She told them she was ‘fully black and fully Catholic,’ and urged them to embrace their African-American, Vietnamese, Native American and other cultural flocks and their customs and music. Sister Thea believed the church could welcome diversity and uphold tradition. She closed her speech by getting the men to stand, link arms and sing the Spiritual ‘We Shall Overcome.’
Sister Thea died in 1990. She is buried in Memphis. Not long after her death, many of her friends wondered if they had known a saint. In the past year or so, rumors spread that Sister had been declared a servant of God. She had not, but it was one more sign that this case might merit a closer look.
Father Nutt met Sister Thea as his teacher, but he now calls her his spiritual mother. He has written two books about her – one will be published this summer – and he often includes reflections on her life in his missions and workshops. His job right now is to research and document her life. Much of this work is already done since he has written about her, but this is an opportunity to gather her writings and records and organize it all in one place.
The first step on the path to sainthood is to determine if a person has ‘heroic virtues.’ Father Nutt will begin to assemble a file – something a little more in-depth than the usual biography – for Bishop Kopacz to review. “I’d love to find every place named for her,” said Father Nutt. The diocese has a school named for Sister Thea, one of half a dozen nation-wide. He has come across shrines dedicated to Sister Thea as close as New Orleans and as far away as Oakland, Calif. The Franciscan Sisters have a foundation in her honor as well as an extensive archive of material.
Father Nutt will review their holdings as well as what is housed in the archives in Jackson as part of his work. The next step, probably months down the road, will be for the bishop to ask the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for input on opening a formal cause for sainthood. If the bishops agree, the case can go to Rome to be opened and the diocese will have to raise money to support it. The cost of canonization can run into the million dollar range.
That’s when work begins in earnest. Once the cause is opened, the promoter will begin telling Sister Thea’s story and encouraging people to pray for her intersession in hopes of producing a miracle. A second miracle is required before the church will canonize a saint.
The whole process of canonization can take decades to complete. Father Nutt is confident he can start by finding Sister Thea’s heroic virtues and see where the Holy Spirit leads after that.
CANTON – The life of Canton native Sister Thea Bowman comes to life on stage in her hometown thanks to a performance of “Thea’s Turn” on Saturday, April 22, at 7:00 p.m. at the Canton High School Auditorium. The project has been declared an official state bicentennial project.
“Thea’s Turn” has strong ties to Canton beyond just Sister Thea’s upbringing. The play’s author, Mary Queen Donnelly, knew the title character while the two grew up in Canton. Canton native, Dr. Mark Henderson, chair of the department of speech, communication and theatre at Jackson State University, serves as executive director. The cast and crew include members of the nationally acclaimed MADDRAMA, an award winning drama troupe under his direction.
The play tells the story of Sister Thea Bowman from her childhood as Bertha Bowman through her conversion to Catholicism and vocation to religious life all the way to the discovery of cancer and her death. The scenes include periods from the late 1940’s through late 1989. Flonzie Brown-Wright, a classmate and playmate of Bertha (Sister Thea), saw the play in Madison during the summer of 2015 and thought it should be staged in Canton. She enlisted the help of Jana Padgett-Dear, executive director of the Canton Convention and Visitors Bureau. Padgett-Dear immediately agreed because in part, it continues her personal commitment to increase the awareness of Sister Thea’s life.
During the spring and summer of 2016, she spent endless hours working with Brown-Wright to update the large display of Sister Thea’s artifacts displayed at the Multicultural Center in town. Incidentally, Padgett-Dear never met Thea, but has been inspired by what she has read and heard about her.
The play attempts to capture the essence of Thea’s struggle of what it meant to be black and Catholic” and her ultimate decision to reconcile Bertha, the great- granddaughter of a slave, and her African American culture with that of the all- white, traditional culture of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in La Crosse, Wis., where she was Sister Thea.
The play gives the viewer a broader understanding of the complexities of the multifaceted Thea. Donnelly used music to portray different periods of Thea’s life. Being a singer, Spirituals and Gospel songs allowed Bertha to remain connected to her southern heritage, while her appreciation for traditional Latin chant and church music gave her the opportunity to remain true to her beliefs as a Catholic sister.
The advisory committee for this production includes a number of people who knew Thea personally during their days at Holy Child Jesus School and Church, either as classmates, students, priests, parishioners, or members of the Thea Bowman Choir.
“Thea’s Turn” first premiered in New Orleans, LA and later in Madison, MS.
Readings continue as far away as New York City.
This official bicentennial project was made possible by a grant from the Mississippi Humanities through support from the Mississippi Development Authority.
To reserve seating and for more information contact: email@example.com or call (601) 859-1307.
(Story submitted by Flonzie Brown-Wright)
By Maureen Smith
MADISON – In honor of the 25th anniversary of the death of Sister Thea Bowman, FSPA, the Office of Black Catholic Ministry for the Diocese of Jackson is sponsoring a staging of the play “Thea’s Turn.” The show was written by Mary Queen Donnelly, a childhood friend of Sister Bowman.
Sister Thea Bowman was a Mississippi native who rose to national prominence with her tireless campaign to promote diversity in the church. She used her own experience of learning about and embracing African American culture to teach that each ethnic and racial group has gifts to offer the church. Sister Bowman used song, storytelling and her extensive education to deliver her message.
The play is a retelling of Sister Bowman’s life. Donnelly said she wanted to portray the conflict Sister Bowman faced and overcame when she tried to reconcile her rich African American cultural background with her desire to be a nun in an all-white, traditional Catholic community. Sister loved her culture and her church. The conflict takes the form of arguments between the adult Sister Thea Bowman and the child Bertha Bowman. “It’s sort of a conflict we all have,” explained Donnelly. The play also features two choirs, a gospel choir and a choir singing pre-Vatican II style liturgical music.
“It’s not a musical, but it is filled with music, because Thea was. She would sometimes burst into song, even during interviews,” said Donnelly. Donnelly said Sister Bowman did not want a blend of African-American and white cultural experiences, she wanted both groups to appreciate and celebrate the other. She wanted people of all racial and cultural backgrounds to recognize their unique ways of worshipping, singing and living and share that diversity with others.
“I just think it’s a great story. I like the way Mary (Donnelly) juxtaposes the solemn, formal worship practices of the church with the praise and hands-in-the-air style worship of Southern Baptist or other Southern churches,” Director Chris Roebuck, education director at New Stage Theater said of the play. He said he considers all of his actors storytellers and wants the process of staging the play to be a collaborative effort. “I want them to find the reality and truth in the story and play that,” he explained.
Roebuck held local auditions to fill the roles in the play, saying he would be looking for people who can embrace the spirit of the show.
Donnelly and Bowman grew up in the same town, Canton, but lived very different lives. Bowman was the only child of a modest black family while Donnelly was one of six children in a white family. The girls knew one another from attending Holy Child Jesus Parish together, but did not stay in close touch after Donnelly left to attend boarding school in New Orleans and Bowman left to join the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
The two reconnected years later when Sister Bowman was in New Orleans to teach at Xavier University’s Institute for Black Catholic Studies. Donnelly was a columnist at that time for the New Orleans Times Picayune. Sister Bowman already had cancer and although she was keeping up with a busy travel and teaching schedule, she had to rest often during her trips to keep up enough energy to give her presentations.
“I asked my editor if I could write a feature about Sister Thea,” said Donnelly. “I spent three days with her. You didn’t just interview Thea – you followed her!” said Donnelly with a chuckle. She attended the classes Sister Bowman taught, went to liturgies with her and sat at her bedside when Sister Bowman was exhausted from her activities.
“She really wanted me to hear her story. She knew her time was limited,” said Donnelly. After she wrote her story, Donnelly continued to keep in touch with her friend from childhood.
After Sister Bowman died, Donnelly wrote several remembrances of her, including one for America Magazine. The play came later, at the suggestion of Sister Bowman’s long-time caretaker Sister Dorothy Ann Kundinger, FSPA. “I tell stories in dialogue. I had so many interviews with her. I felt this urgency in Thea,” explained Donnelly. “I thought Thea wanted to be on stage. She was such a dramatist,” she added.
Much of the dialogue is quotes from Donnelly’s interview notes. “I used her words. Most of the play is from private conversations,” she said.
The play has been performed in New Orleans, New York and won a new play competition at the New Stage Theater in Jackson. Some of those performances were just staged readings, but the one in New Orleans was a complete play.
“I learned of the play several years back when it was featured in New Orleans. I caught it there and it was amazing,” said Will Jemison, coordinator for the Office of Black Catholic Ministry. “I think it’s great that the diocese Sister Thea served in will finally have a chance to feature her and educate a new generation about her steadfastness of faith, in spite of so many challenges,” he added.
Donnelly is also thrilled to bring the play to Sister Bowman’s home diocese. The playwright has moved back to Canton and is glad to be closer to the community where she grew up.
Sister Thea has been gone for 25 years, but Donnelly said her legacy is an important one. “I think she has a big message for people. We need her.”
One of the themes Donnelly thought was so important to Sister Bowman’s work was that each individual has a gift to offer. It might be why the nun loved the song ‘this little light of mine,’ which plays a role in the production. “People think they have to do big things, but everyone has a little light they can shine for humanity,” said Donnelly.
Thea’s Turn will be staged at the Fine Arts Center at Madison St. Joseph High School Friday and Saturday April 10-11, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, April 12, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10 each and can be reserved by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
JACKSON – Brother Mickey McGrath presented four workshops for different groups around the diocese during a visit the week of April 6. First, he led a workshop at the diocesan school principals’ retreat where administrators drew mandalas using different symbols and then talked about the meaning of each.
Then he joined 90 people, 45 at Madison St. Francis of Assisi School and another 45 the next day at Tupelo St. James Parish to present a Lenten retreat called “Cloud of Witnesses,” where they talked about saints and holy people in the church.
Before he left, Brother McGrath gave a workshop to the students, staff and faculty at Jackson Sister Thea Bowman School and donated one of his paintings of Sister Thea to the school for the drawdown, which is set for Saturday, April 26, at 6:30 p.m. For information on the drawdown, call the school, 601-352-5441.