By Joanna Puddister King
CANTON – New Group Media out of South Bend, Indiana is working to tell the story of Sister Thea Bowman. Filming is taking place in many locations where Sister Thea Bowman lived and worked, requiring in-depth work for both crew and community members.
Writer and producer, Sister Judy Zielinski, OSF said that she wanted to touch base and operate out of the spaces that Sister Thea lived in and used. “She was a brilliant, charismatic, prophetic, outspoken woman,” said Sister Judy during an interview. “And she is a force of nature.” Spaces chosen for filming include sites in Canton, Jackson, Memphis, New Orleans and in LaCrosse, Wisconsin.
The film will explore Sister Thea’s life and path to sainthood through interviews and commentary from her family, sisters in community, colleagues, friends and former students. While filming in Mississippi, the crew filmed interviews with Bishop Joseph Kopacz, and those that knew Sister Thea personally, including Sister Dorothy Kundinger, FSPA; former students, Myrtle Otto and Cornelia Johnson; and childhood friends, Mamie Chinn and Flonzie Brown-Wright.
The crew began scouting sites in April 2021 and at the end of May, they filmed in Canton, Jackson and at Sister Thea’s grave site in Memphis at Elmwood Cemetery. In addition to interviews, scenes were filmed depicting young Bertha Bowman’s life before entering the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration (FSPA) in LaCrosse, Wisconsin.
On hand for most of the production in Canton, Flonzie Brown-Wright, a self-described “non-crier,” was moved to tears during depictions of herself, young Bertha Bowman and friend Mamie Chinn.
“She was so special to me. This morning, … when I saw the little girls sitting on the porch, I just lost it. I just lost it because it was just so reminiscent of what actually happened during those days,” said Brown-Wright.
The crew filmed re-enactments at the Bowman family home on Hill Street in Canton, complete with a 1936 Grand Master roadster car parked out front. Scenes with Thea, Brown-Wright and Chinn eating cookies on the front steps, playing with dolls and socializing were filmed with local talent.
Eleven-year-old, Madison Ware of Canton was chosen to play young Bertha. “I was really excited to do the part of Thea,” said Ware.
In addition to scenes at Holy Child Jesus Canton and playing outside the Bowman family home, Ware also re-enacted young Bertha’s hunger strike after her parents forbade her to go off to Wisconsin to become a nun. Ware sat at the dining room table in the Bowman home with determination stating as young Bertha would – “I’m not hungry.”
Other scenes depicted in Canton include portrayals of young Thea, Brown-Wright and Chinn walking to school and playing dress up as nuns.
In Jackson, the crew sat down with Bishop Kopacz at the Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle to talk about the cause for Sister Thea and spoke about what he called “her first miracle,” when she addressed the U.S. Bishops Conference in June 1989 and led them to join arms and sing “We Shall Overcome.”
At Sister Thea’s grave site at Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis, the crew arranged for a beautiful white spray filled with gardenias, roses and magnolias to sit at her plot. Re-enactment at the grave site included prayer and a hymn led by Myrtle Otto – “I’ll Be Singing Up There.”
The final day of filming in Canton concluded at Holy Child Jesus with Mass, a performance by the church choir and solo of “On Zion’s Hill” by Wright-Brown.
Life-long friends, Brown-Wright kept in contact with Sister Thea up until her passing from cancer in 1990 traveling from her home, at the time, in Ohio just two weeks before her death. She said Sister Thea told her “what I want you to do when I’m gone … [is] to come back to play and sing the song “On Zion’s Hill.” The same song Sister Thea sang at both her father and mother’s funerals.
With Wright-Brown in an African dashiki and headdress singing there was hardly a dry-eye between the crew present, as Sister Thea’s presence was felt in the moment.
Between June 20-23, the crew filmed in LaCrosse, Wisconsin at St. Rose Convent and Viterbo University, shooting re-enactments of Sister Thea at the FSPA motherhouse. Director Chris Salvador described plans to capture Sister Thea arriving at the convent in a white pinafore dress and then using a machine to morph her. “So, it goes in 360° and she changes from her first outfit, and she eventually comes out in her African dashiki,” said Salvador.
Brown-Wright reminisced during filming in Canton about one trip to LaCrosse to visit her friend. When she got there, Brown-Wright expected to see her friend dressed in a habit, but instead found her in “a dashiki, sandals and a natural.”
“I asked her what happened, and she said, ‘Girl, those petticoats were just too hot,” laughed Brown-Wright. “What she was doing was preparing a culture for a yearning to understand our culture. That was her transformation from coming out of the habits … to her natural dress because that’s who she was,” said Brown Wright.
“She taught the world how to be a Black Catholic sister.”
In New Orleans the film crew will conduct more interviews and film at the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University, where Sister Thea offered courses in African American literature and preaching.
The working title of the film is “Going Home Like a Shooting Star – Sister Thea Bowman’s Journey to Sainthood.” It is drawn from a quote attributed to Sojourner Truth. When Sister Thea was asked what she wanted said at her funeral, she answered,” Just say what Sojourner Truth said: ‘I’m not going to die, honey, I’m going home like a shooting star.’”
Production of the documentary was delayed about a year due to COVID. The film makers, with Bishop Kopacz as executive producer, hope to air the documentary nationwide in the fall of 2022 on ABC.