By Adrienne Curry
Sitting at a kitchen table in Chicago more than three decades ago, I had a chance to get to know a holy woman who might one day be recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church.
Sister Thea Bowman, granddaughter of slaves and the first African American member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, was in Chicago for a series of speaking engagements. She stayed that weekend with the lay community where I was living.
Many people in the Black Catholic community and beyond were aware of Sister Thea because of her dynamic presentations around the country – lively gatherings that combined singing, Gospel preaching, prayer and storytelling. She spoke in a direct way to break down racial and cultural barriers. She also encouraged people to communicate with one another so they could understand other cultures and races.
I was relatively new to Catholicism at the time Sister Thea stayed with my lay community, but I had previously heard Sister Thea speak when she visited Chicago for frequent revivals and workshops. One of my housemates attended the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans and had the chance to take classes with Sister Thea.
Like Sister Thea, I was the only Catholic in my family. I remember that we spoke about what that common experience was like. We talked about being Black and Catholic, and the gifts we bring by being our “authentic Black selves to the Church.”
Being Black and Catholic is kind of an enigma: We aren’t accepted by the wider Black church, and, unfortunately, our gifts are still not fully accepted in the wider Catholic Church.
“I bring myself; my Black self, all that I am, all that I have, all that I hope to become,” Sister Thea told the U.S. bishops in a famous 1989 address. “I bring my whole history, my traditions, my experience, my culture, my African American song and dance and gesture and movement and teaching and preaching and healing and responsibility – as gifts to the church. I bring a spirituality that our Black American bishops told us (they just told us what everybody who knew, knew), that spirituality is contemplative and Biblical and holistic, bringing to religion a totality of mind and imaginations, of memory, of feeling and passion, and emotion and intensity. A faith that is embodied, incarnate praise – a spirituality that knows how to find joy even in the time of sorrow – that steps out on faith that leans on the Lord.”
Sister Thea lived a full life. She fought evil, especially prejudice, suspicion, hatred and things that drive people apart. She fought for God and God’s people until her death in 1990. Throughout her life, Sister Thea pioneered the rights of African Americans in the Catholic Church and refused to accept the racial injustices she witnessed within her community.
This holy woman is now one of six American Black Catholics who are in the process of canonization. The U.S. bishops endorsed her sainthood cause during their 2018 fall general assembly in Baltimore.
I would like to close with a prayer by Sister Thea. Her words are so needed today.
“O, Lord, help us to be attentive to your commands. Help us to walk in unity. Help us to celebrate who we are and whose we are. Help us to overcome selfishness, anger and violence in our hearts, in our homes, in our church, in our world. Help us to knock down, pull down, shout down the walls of racism, sexism, classism, materialism and militarism that divide and separate us. Help us to live as your united people, proclaiming with one voice our faith, our hope, our love, our joy. Amen.”
Sister Thea Bowman, pray for us!
(Adrienne Curry’s piece first appeared in the Catholic Review. Find them at catholicreview.org.)