By Mary Queen Donnelly
CANTON – Sculptor Mary Davidson and her co-artist-husband Dr. Kenneth Davidson watched as the “Black Christ” was being erected on the wall behind the altar at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Camden, Mississippi. Suddenly the voice of a parishioner spoke to Mary, almost in a whisper. It was 2007.
“I hope one day you will create a statue of Sister Thea Bowman,” the voice said.
It was the first time Mary Davidson had heard of Sister Thea Bowman. However, having been alerted to the name, she began to take notice of articles about Sister Thea.
She learned that Sister Thea, like herself, was a native Mississippian, that she was the only African American to enter the all-white religious congregation of nuns, the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Additionally, she learned that Sister Thea was the grandchild of a slave; and that she converted to Catholicism at age nine from her family’s Protestant religious background. Thea had been inspired by the kindness and love demonstrated by the Franciscan Sisters who had come to serve her community in Canton, Mississippi, by starting a school for African American children.
Bertha, her name at birth, was the treasure of Dr. Theon Edward Bowman, a physician, and her mother Mary Esther Coleman Bowman, educator and housewife. At an early age they transferred Bertha to Holy Child Jesus Catholic School where the Franciscan Sisters administered and taught. As educators, Bertha’s parents were dissatisfied with the caliber of education in the segregated Canton Public Schools.
A bright child, Bertha rapidly advanced at Holy Child School, skipped grades and excelled in every aspect of the curriculum. At age 15, she decided she wanted to leave her beloved home in Canton, Mississippi and join the Congregation of Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
At first, this idea did not sit well with Bertha’s parents. After all, Bertha was their only child. Neighbors and friends called her an “old folk’s child.” At her birth, Dr. Bowman had bought an expensive bottle of champagne to be popped open at her wedding. The bottle of champagne, still unopened, is kept in the Thea Museum in Canton, Mississippi.
Davidson and her husband Ken were commissioned to create many works after that moment in Sacred Heart Church in Camden. Among them: a bust of Bishop Joseph Lawson Howze, an African American bishop who was the first bishop of the Biloxi diocese.
In between artistic creations, Mary and Ken taught classes in stone carving, bronze casting and sculpture at workshops for 20 summers in Wisconsin and New Jersey. They also conducted classes in design, pottery and sculpture in Gulfport, Mississippi.
Although embroiled in many artistic projects, Mary Davidson never forgot that hand on her shoulder in Camden, Mississippi where she first heard of Sister Thea Bowman.
One quiet day in July 2022, Davidson contacted a friend whom she remembered grew up with Sister Thea in their hometown of Canton, Mississippi. Her friend put her in touch with Mary Woodward, Chancellor of the Diocese of Jackson, who serves as diocesan liaison for the canonical process for Sister Thea’s canonization cause.
The rest is an inspirational tale that has resulted in Davidson’s creation of a nearly six-foot clay statue of Sister Thea, currently being prepared by artisans for bronze casting at the Inferno Art Foundry in Union City, Georgia.
Before commissioning Davidson to create the statue, the project had to be funded. Scouring her memory for a potential patron who might be interested in supporting such a project, Davidson remembered that she had taught Archbishop Thomas Rodi of the Archdiocese of Mobile in Alabama, when he was in eighth grade at Our Lady of Lourdes School in New Orleans. At the time, Davidson was known as Sister Mary Augustine, O.P. – a Dominican sister.
“He was a difficult, typical boy,” Davidson remembers.
Archbishop Rodi agrees. “We definitely tested her patience and resolve on many occasions,” he said.
Upon being contacted by Davidson about the proposal to create a bronze statue of Sister Thea Bowman, Archbishop Rodi was very interested. As a former bishop of the Biloxi diocese, Archbishop Rodi was very familiar with Davidson’s work, especially the bust of Bishop Howze.
Archbishop Rodi contacted Bishop Joseph Kopacz of the Diocese of Jackson, to offer his support in bringing the project to fruition. With the assistance of all the bishops of the Mobile Province – Archbishop Rodi, Bishop Louis Kihneman of Biloxi, Bishop Stephen Raica of Birmingham, and funds from the estate of his predecessor, Bishop Joseph Latino – Bishop Kopacz was able to commission Davidson to create the statue of Sister Thea. Thus, the statue is a unique and symbolic gift from the bishops and dioceses of Mississippi and Alabama.
It should be noted that at this critical phase of the development of a proposal to create a bronze statue of Sister Thea, Davidson’s lifelong artistic partner and husband Ken was taken ill. He was diagnosed with Lewy Body Syndrome, a debilitating and fatal condition that left him with just months or weeks to live.
So, while contemplating the signing of a contract in March 2023, she relied on her faith to embark on a challenging project – without the physical and emotional assistance of someone she had relied upon for a lifetime.
In addition, she had promised Ken that she would take care of him. And so it was that Davidson used what few moments left to bring life to the roll of clay that lay before her. In between struggling to take Ken to doctors, dressing and feeding him, answering his every call for help (as his mind was deteriorating along with his body) she worked her arthritic fingers into the clay – and prayed.
On Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, Ken died.
Davidson’s friend and spiritual director, Father George Murphy, who knew both Ken and Davidson, helped her through the dark days ahead.
She had signed a contract. Realizing she needed help to continue with the project, she requested the assistance of a former student from a class she had taught in Wisconsin.
On Oct. 21, 2023, Davidson completed the clay version of the statue. She invited the Sister Thea Statue Committee to visit her studio in Saucier, Mississippi, in order to view the statue and give their approval before proceeding to the bronzing stage of the statue. Woodward led the committee and brought with her Fabvienen Taylor, longtime friend of Sister Thea and former photojournalist with Mississippi Catholic. They arrived at Davidson’s studio to view the almost finished clay statue for the first time on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2023.
Woodward recorded her reflections of that moment.
“As we approached the garage/studio where the statue awaited us, I remember feeling drawn in by the aura of the creation, similar to how a magnet draws metal to itself,” Woodward said. “The more I gazed upon her, the more I was moved by the complexity of the moment. I could feel a tear inching its way down my cheek.
“It was an honor to work on the project with Mary – sharing wonderful lunches with her and Ken and knowing what tremendous loss she was now bearing; I knew Sister Thea, Ken and the Lord were giving her the strength to bring life to the statue – for indeed the statue seemed to move and breathe. The hands, styled from a photo of Sister Thea that Mary and I both loved, welcome the viewer into her mystical space,” Woodward concluded.
Taylor too was struck by the clay mold. “Sister Thea’s statue captures her welcoming, vibrant, and loving outreach to all people. The out-stretched hands and smile evoke the Sister Thea I remember: a woman of God over-flowing with a powerful desire and relentless energy to inspire and empower everyone she encountered with the knowledge and understanding of God’s all-encompassing and unwavering love for them,” she added.
On Oct. 29, 2023, Mary Davidson opened her studio for invited guests to view the statue. Some were familiar with her work. Some not. The reviews were glowing. Comments varied from “The hands!” “The eyes!” “I feel like she is inviting me to hug her.”
Days later, the artisan from the Inferno Art Foundry of Union City, Georgia, arrived to form a mold from the clay statue. The mold was taken to the foundry in Georgia to undergo several stages in the process before finally pouring bronze to form the final stage – a bronze statue of Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman, FSPA.
According to Bishop Kopacz, the current plan is to house the bronze statue at the Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle in Jackson until a permanent shrine can be developed as part of the canonization process. The installation ceremony will occur sometime after Easter this spring, 2024.
“We are grateful to all those who have assisted in this wonderful project, especially Mrs. Davidson, who despite her personal tragedy has created an amazing work of art to honor the legacy and spirit of Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman,” Bishop Kopacz said. “I very much look forward to its arrival at the Cathedral,” he concluded.
(Mary Queen Donnelly, a contemporary of Sister Thea Bowman, FSPA, was born and raised in the same town of Canton, Mississippi, and remained a lifelong friend of Sister Thea until Thea’s death March 30, 1990. Donnelly has published several articles on her friend. Of late, Donnelly published and produced Thea’s Turn, a stage play based on the life of Sister Thea Bowman.)