From the Archives
By Mary Woodward
JACKSON – A few weeks ago on Dec. 30, we marked what would have been Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman, FSPA’s 86th birthday. One of the towering figures in modern Catholicism in America, Sister Thea, the granddaughter of slaves, was born in Yazoo City in 1937.
Her parents enrolled her in Catholic school at Holy Child Jesus in Canton, which was staffed by Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration of LaCrosse, Wisconsin. She decided at age nine to become Catholic and then entered the convent at the age of 15.
Sister Thea faced many trials and challenges as the only African American in the novitiate, but she persevered and later after a few years of teaching earned a doctorate in literature from the Catholic University of America.
Gifted with a brilliant mind, beautiful voice and a dynamic personality, Sister Thea shared the message of African American spirituality and intercultural dynamics throughout the country.
“The common denominator in all my presentations was cross-cultural communications,” she once remarked. “We have different ways of thinking and praying and singing and dancing and relating and living. Our diversity is our greatest gift. Our diversity is a source of enrichment for our world, our church, our society and our country.”
In 1979, she returned to the Diocese of Jackson to be closer to her aging parents and to become consultant for intercultural awareness in the diocese. She continued to be a highly sought after speaker and often scheduled 100 or more presentations a year on spirituality, worship and prayer.
Her presentations were lively gatherings that combined singing, gospel preaching, prayer and storytelling. Her programs were directed to break down racial and cultural barriers.
Sister Thea was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1984. She continued to travel and speak though her schedule was greatly cutback.
In 1989, Sister Thea, in one of her last major appearances, addressed the U.S. bishops gathered for their spring meeting. At the meeting she spoke of what it was like to be Black and Catholic in America at that time. In the midst of her talk, she broke forth in song as she was known to do, this time capturing the tone of her talk in an old, familiar spiritual: “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child … sometimes I feel like an eagle in the air….” By the end of the session, she had the bishops joined hand in hand, swaying in a rousing version of “We Shall Overcome.”
Sister Thea died at her home in Canton on March 30, 1990. Her funeral Mass was celebrated at St. Mary Church in Jackson before a standing room only congregation of friends and admirers from around the world.
For those who knew her or worked with her or were around her for even a short time, she was a great inspiration. She will always be remembered for her great commitment to justice, hope and peace and for her work within the church to open it up to the gifts of African American spirituality and diversity for all. Sister Thea was a tireless child of God who loved the Lord Jesus, his people and his church.
On Nov. 18, 2018, Bishop Joseph Kopacz officially opened the cause for the beatification and canonization of Sister Thea Bishop’s edict was read to the faithful in the Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle during the Sunday liturgy.
Having received the nihil obstat from the Holy See’s Dicastery for the Causes of Saints and gotten approval from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at the November 2018 plenary meeting in Baltimore, the cause opened the diocesan phase of the intricate canonical process leading to possible beatification.
During this phase, the Servant of God’s (this is the title she now carries) writings, theology, biography is studied and documented by appointed experts. Many witnesses who knew her have been interviewed, but there are several more to complete. When the pandemic hit, travel and interviews stopped.
This year we are focused on tying up several loose ends and printing everything in triplicate so that it may be sent to Rome. We have enlisted the help of Msgr. Robert Sarno, a retired priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, who served in the Dicastery at the Vatican. Msgr. Sarno connected us with a new Roman postulator, Dr. Emanuele Spedicato, who is now guiding our team and getting these details into a manageable process for us.
When all is ready, Bishop Kopacz will lead a special liturgy in which the documents will be sealed and presented to the postulator to deliver to the dicastery. Once that is completed, the postulator will work with the dicastery to move the cause forward. At a certain point, once the cause is in Rome, the Holy Father may declare the Servant of God as Venerable – showing heroic virtue.
After Venerable, the next step is beatification, which requires a miracle. Examination of the miracle goes through a similar canonical process as the diocesan phase. If a miracle is proven and accepted, the Servant of God is put on the schedule for an official liturgy of beatification.
Please continue to pray for the cause and if you are so moved go to our diocesan website – www.jacksondiocese.org – and make a donation.
(Mary Woodward is Chancellor and Archivist for the Diocese of Jackson.)