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.
By Maureen Smith