My Advent pilgrimage to the gravesite of Sister Thea Bowman

By Shannen Dee Williams (CNS)

On Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, the third day of Advent and the last day of Black Catholic History Month, I visited the historic Elmwood Cemetery in my hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, and gazed upon the gravesite of “Servant of God” Sister Thea Bowman, one of six African Americans currently under consideration for sainthood.

Although I grew up Black and Catholic, I did not learn about the existence of African American nuns until 2007, while enrolled in graduate school.

Two years later, a conversation in Memphis with then-Bishop J. Terry Steib directed me to the principal’s office of the diocese’s Holy Names of Mary and Jesus School for an interview with Sister Donna Banfield.

During our meeting, Sister Donna, who led Holy Names from 2006 to 2010, informed me of Sister Thea’s final resting place in the city.

I also learned that Sister Donna, a former president of the National Black Sisters’ Conference, led her students on an annual trip to Sister Thea’s gravesite to pay their respects and bear to witness to the lived reality of Black Catholic saints in our midst.

Shannen Dee Williams is associate professor of history at the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio. She writes the Catholic News Service column, “The Griot’s Cross.” (CNS photo/John C. Shetron, courtesy Villanova University)

Inspired by Sister Donna’s leadership, I decided to make my own pilgrimage to Sister Thea’s gravesite but not until I completed my planned book on the largely hidden history of the nation’s Black sisters. I wanted the visit to be special, and it truly was.

Reflecting on Sister Thea’s short but powerful epitaph, “She tried,” etched onto her family’s headstone, I thanked her for championing the intellectual, spiritual and cultural gifts of the African American community in the face of discrimination and resistance in our church. I also thanked Sister Thea for being a model of excellence and compassion for all humankind.

“Be woman. Be man. Be priest,” Sister Thea liked to say. “Be single, be married. … Be Irish American, be Italian American, be Native American, be African American, but be one in Christ.”

In these trying times, one can only wonder what Sister Thea, an unapologetic champion of Black life, mothers, families and social equality, might say about the current state of our bitterly divided nation and church.

From the various attempts to stop the teaching of Black history and the nation’s original sins of racism and colonialism to the global climate crisis to the current attempts to roll back the civil rights victories of the middle decades of the 20th century – especially voting rights – I also wonder what advice Sister Thea, a member of the pioneering generation of Black Catholic women and girls who desegregated the nation’s white sisterhoods, would give those fearful of the uncertain future ahead.

In her final years, Sister Thea, a Mississippi native who was also the granddaughter of enslaved people, made it clear where she stood on all forms of injustice. “I will never reconcile myself with … racism … sexism … classism … anything destructive,” she stated.

Too often those who champion Sister Thea and her canonization cause erase her clear understanding of the interconnected dimensions of oppression.

In so doing, they do a terrible disservice to her and other freedom fighters, who always understood that any demand for racial and educational justice not connected to the larger fight for human rights and justice was insincere and illegitimate.

As this nation seems poised with a return to a society that Sister Thea, and so many Black sisters like her fought to bury, I pray for the strength and grace to meet the stark challenges ahead.

During this Advent season, I also pray for the wisdom to remember Sister Thea’s great sacrifice for her beliefs and the courage to seek new ways of living that no longer require martyrdom to convince opponents of human equality to uphold the church’s most basic social teaching of affirming the lives and dignity of all people.

(Shannen Dee Williams is a cradle Catholic and associate professor of history at the University of Dayton. She is the author of “Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle,” which will be published by Duke University Press on May 27, 2022. Follow her on Twitter at @BlkNunHistorian.)