By Father Joe Dyer
Before reading this essay I want you to think of five famous people. Sr. Thea Bowman, FSPA, will be remembered as______________. How would you complete that sentence? There are many appropriate objects for such a tiny little preposition. Some of them are, a theologian, a writer, a trouble maker, a musician, a preacher, an educator, a feminist, an orator, a sassy nun, the person who made Mike Wallace say “Black is Beautiful,” and others.
Stop. Make that five famous black people.
We remember stories. My favorite is hearsay but, like the best gossip, it is too good not to pass on. It seems that she and Bishop Brunini were in the break room at the chancery and he teased her saying something like “the pope wants you nuns back in habits.” She is said to have replied “Oh yeah!?!?
Is the pope going to pay for that expensive material that we had to use to make those habits? Is he going to pay for those overpriced shoes we could only get at one place? Is he going to pay for the purses we had to carry?” To which the bishop replied, “Sister Thea, you don’t want a pope, you want a sugar daddy!” Like I said, I wasn’t there but I can easily imagine those two Gospel-committed Mississippians funnin’ in the break room then going back to their offices to do the work of the church. There are many other stories, not all of them pleasant or funny.
Wait. Let’s make that five famous black women.
Before she died, Sister Thea became friends with the novelist, Margaret Walker. I listened to them share stories about people and places “back in the day;” I heard them analyze the current status of life in Mississippi and life in the world. They spoke to each other as friend to friend; believer to believer and as scholar to scholar. I was privileged to be in the presence of two amazing scholars (OK, and to have two amazing names to drop).
I repeat, two amazing SCHOLARS. Just wondering, when asked to name five famous people were any black? When asked to name famous black people, how many are female? When asked to name famous black women, how many of the five are scholars? If you are not black, don’t feel picked-on. Educated blacks would probably not think of scholars when asked to name the famous. If asked, I think educated black people might need a minute to come up with the names of five black female scholars.
Sister Thea was a real scholar but when people reminisce about her I don’t think they imagine her in the library researching Thomas More and other thinkers of that time for her dissertation (remember, this was before God created the internet). Everyone knows she could preach, but what about developing a graduate-level course on black preaching, praxis and theory?
You know she was a natural singer, but she also studied voice in the convent – music teachers were amazed that she had the range of both a soprano and a contralto. She lectured on Faulkner at Ole Miss and arranged for her students from Viterbo to come to Mississippi on a “Faulkner Tour” to get a first-hand experience of the sights and sounds and smells and the August light in his prose. She also arranged for those students to live in the homes of black people in Canton, but that’s a different story. She loved Shakespeare.
Honor Sister Thea’s memory. Do right by it and the next time there is a bond issue for public education vote for it. Help future generations to be able to name scholars of every race and gender without biting off the erasers from their pencils.
P.S. In addition to Margaret Walker and Sister Thea, here are a few names to help you along: Angela Davis, Condoleeza Rice, Maya Angelou, Lani Guinier, Anita Hill.
(Father Joe Dyer is the pastor of Forest St. Michael and friend of Sister Thea Bowman, among other famous people.)
- Anniversary offers chance to reflect on Sr. Bowman’s message, legacy
- Bishop remembers Sister’s patient enthusiasm
- Local Events Honoring Sister Bowman
- Local Sister Thea Bowman School carries on mission
- Franciscan Sisters announce events to honor Sister Bowman
- ‘Let us love one another,’ Sister Bowman’s Holy Week reflection