‘Let us love one another,’ Sister Bowman’s Holy Week reflection

(EDITOR’S NOTE: About three weeks before she died, Sister Thea Bowman, FSPA, wrote a meditation for Holy Week as part of a Mississippi Catholic Lenten series. She dictated it to Sister Dorothy Kundinger, her companion. This was probably her last public writing and was published April 6, 1990)
Let us resolve to make this week holy by claiming Christ’s redemptive grace and by living holy lives. The Word became flesh and redeemed us by his holy life and holy death. This week especially let us accept redemption by living grateful, faithful, prayerful, generous, just and holy lives.
Let us resolve to make this week holy by reading and meditating Holy Scripture. So often we get caught up in the hurry of daily living. As individuals and as families, reserve prime time to be with Jesus, to hear the cries of the children waving palm branches, to see the Son of Man riding on an ass’ colt, to feel the press of the crowd, to be caught up in the “Hosannas” and to realize how the cries of acclamation will yield to the garden of suffering, to be there and watch as Jesus is sentenced by Pilate to Calvary, to see him rejected, mocked, spat upon, beaten, and forced to carry a heavy cross, to hear the echo of the hammer, to feel the agony of torn flesh and strained muscles, to know Mary’s anguish as he hung three hours before he died.
We recoil before the atrocities of war, gang crime, domestic violence and catastrophic illness. Unless we personally and immediately are touched by suffering it is easy to read Scripture and to walk away without contacting the redemptive suffering that makes us holy. The reality of the Word falls on deaf ears.
Let us take time this week to be present to someone who suffers. Sharing the pain of a fellow human will enliven Scripture and help us enter into the holy mystery of the redemptive suffering of Christ.
Let us resolve to make this week holy by participating in the Holy Weeks services of the church, not just by attending, but also by preparing, by studying the readings, entering into the spirit, offering our services as ministers of the Word or Eucharist, decorating the church or preparing the environment for worship.
Let us sing, “Lord, have mercy,” and “Hosanna.” Let us praise the Lord with our whole heart and soul and mind and strength, uniting with the suffering church throughout the world – in Rome, and Northern Ireland, in Syria and Lebanon, in South Africa and Angola, India and China, Nicaragua and El Salvador, in Washington, D.C., and Jackson, Miss.
Let us break bread together, let us relive the holy and redemptive mystery. Let us do it in memory of Him acknowledging in faith his real presence upon our altars.
Let us resolve to make this week holy by sharing holy peace and joy within our families, sharing family prayer on a regular basis, making every meal a holy meal where loving conversations bond family members in unity, sharing family work without grumbling, making love not war, asking forgiveness for past hurts and forgiving one another from the heart, seeking to go all the way for love as Jesus went all the way for love.
Let us resolve to make this week holy by sharing holy peace and joy with the needy, the alienated, the lonely, the sick and afflicted, the untouchable.
Let us unite our sufferings, inconveniences and annoyances with the sufferings of Jesus. Let us stretch ourselves, going beyond our comfort zones to unite ourselves with Christ’s redemptive work.
We unite ourselves with Christ’s redemptive work when we reconcile, when we make peace, when we share the Good News that God is in our lives, when we reflect to our brothers and sisters God’s healing, God’s forgiveness, God’s unconditional love.
Let us be practical reaching out across the boundaries of race and class and status to help somebody, to encourage and affirm somebody, offering to the young an incentive to learn and grow, offering to the downtrodden resources to help themselves.
May our fasting be the kind that saves and shares with the poor, that actually contacts the needy, that gives heart to heart, that touches and nurtures and heals. During this Holy Week, when Jesus gave his life for love, let us truly love one another.


Franciscan Sisters announce events to honor Sister Bowman

La Crosse, Wis. – Thea Bowman, FSPA (1937-1990), is revered as one of the most significant figures in modern Catholicism having dedicated her life working for the black community. During her life, and primarily in the years after the peak of the civil rights movement carrying on the Martin Luther King Jr. legacy, Sister Bowman, a black woman, worked with people of all races to help them see their own lives in a new light. To mark the 25th anniversary of her death following a courageous battle with breast cancer, the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration will host a series of events to celebrate her profound influence.
• Friends of Thea: Sharing the Joy, March 29, 2 – 4 p.m., Franciscan Spirituality Center, La Crosse, Wisc. —FSPA invites everyone to a panel discussion focused on Sister Bowman’s legacy as it continues today. Panelists include author and renowned evangelist Rev. Maurice Nutt, artist and writer Brother Mickey McGrath, fellow Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration Marla Lang and Thea Foundation’s Mary Lou Jennings.
• Thea Bowman: Life and Legacy on Display, March 17 to 30, Franciscan Spirituality Center, La Crosse, Wisc. —The Franciscan Spirituality Center will showcase art and artifacts, including art by Brother Mickey McGrath, that illustrates Sister Thea’s effect on the world during and after her life.
• Come and See, March 27 to 30, St. Rose Convent, La Crosse, Wisc. FSPA welcomes women 21 to 45 who are interested in living a vowed religious life to a Come and See that includes the art exhibit and panel discussion.
• Mass, March 30, at 10:30 a.m. CST, Mary of the Angels Chapel, St. Rose Convent, La Crosse, Wisc. Recognizing Sister Bowman’s death anniversary, presider and homilist Rev. Maurice Nutt will be joined by the Viterbo University concert choir for Mass. For friends of Sister Bowman unable to attend, Mass will stream live on the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration’s website.
All event details and registration information is available at www.fspa.org/theabowman.
FSPA and the Franciscan Spirituality Center recognize the many ways in which Sister Bowman’s spirit continues to move people to find their deepest humanity. Her influence is profound today, with six schools, a center for women and a foundation bearing her name and all seeking to educate and advance humanity of all backgrounds.
(Based in La Crosse, Wisc., the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration are women religious engaged in furthering the work of the Catholic Church and the Gospel. Their partners in ministry, including affiliates and prayer partners, join them in service of God’s mission. The sisters work in the United States and internationally in varied ministries, creating innovative approaches to healing, teaching and praying. Visit FSPA online at www.fspa.org or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/franciscansisters.)


Local Sister Thea Bowman School carries on mission

JACKSON – One of Sister Bowman’s most enduring legacies is in education. Her impact as a teacher was so great that a number of schools bear her name, including one in Jackson.
Shae Robinson, principal at that school, said hearing Sister Bowman speak in the late 1980s still drives her mission in education today. “Her presence was just like the song ‘This Little Light of Mine.’ She had a glow about her. It was like she was a flame that would never go out,” said Robinson.
At the revival Robinson attended, “She talked about how each person lives their life through other people and to make sure you give it your all, that you portray the love you have when you work with others. Don’t let that light go out,” said Robinson.
She said those who went to a Sister Bowman gathering were not spectators. “There was complete audience participation. You felt like you were a part of it, like Sister Thea was speaking directly to you,” she said.
Robinson applies Sister Bowman’s message and her style of using song, dance and story to the mission of the school. “We say this is a school where students excel and prophets are formed. As a prophet, you take the Word and you go out and live that. You have to portray your service, your respect for others and you have to use your God-given talents,” she said.
The students have been preparing a Black History Month program honoring Sister Bowman since early this year. The play, ‘This Little Light of Mine,’ had to be postponed twice because of bad weather, but is now set for Thursday, March 26, at  6:15 p.m. in the multi-purpose room at Christ the King.
Students and teachers worked together to make an anagram out the name Thea Bowman. Each letter represents a different African American figure. The characters include poets, scholars, civil rights leaders, writers and more. The students will incorporate song, dance and their own talents into telling the story of Sister Bowman and connecting it to those who have worked to ensure the dignity and rights of others.
Robinson said the program is just one way the staff makes sure the students know Sister Bowman so they can live out her message.
The principal said one of the most inspirational things about Sister Bowman was how she handled her illness and impending death.
“She was in so much pain, but she was still getting out there, seeing people, meeting people. She made you feel like you were her own child,” she said.
“She knew where her home was. How many of us can say I really, truly know and I’m ready to go home?”.


Local Events Honoring Sister Bowman:

– Thursday, March 26, 6:15 p.m. “This Little Light of Mine – A tribute to the life of Sr. Thea Bowman, Jackson Sr. Thea Bowman School.

– Friday April 10 and Saturday April 11, 7 p.m. and Sunday April 12, 2 p.m., M032015thea08adison St. Joseph High School Fine Arts Center, “Thea’s Turn,” a play written by Mary Queen Donnelly. For tickets: theasturntickets@gmail.com or 601-960-8470.

– Saturday, April 25, 4 p.m., Canton Holy Child Jesus Parish, Father Maurice Nutt, C.Ss.R., will offer a presentation on Sister Thea.  Father Nutt is currently a member of the Redemptorist Parish Mission Preaching Team based in Chicago, Ill., a member of the faculty of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana, New Orleans where he teaches preaching.  He has written three books:  “Thea Bowman:  In My Own Words,” “Advent and Christmas Wisdom from St. Alphonsus Liguori,” and “Lent and Easter Wisdom from St. Alphonsus Liguori.” Father Nutt is also a contributor to the African American Catholic Youth Bible, a collaborative project between the National Black Catholic Congress and St. Mary’s Press.

– Sunday, April 26, 10 a.m., Canton Holy Child Jesus Parish, Mass to honor Sister Thea Bowman. Father Nutt will be the main celebrant, a reception will follow.


Bishop remembers Sister’s patient enthusiasm

By Bishop William Houck
One of my privileges and joyful tasks when I came to Jackson as Auxiliary Bishop in 1979 was to meet, get to know and begin to work closely in ministry with Sister Thea Bowman.  She had received and joyfully accepted at Bishop Brunini’s request, the position of  Director of Intercultural Awareness. She had returned to her native Mississippi in order to help take care of her parents, which she did with dedication and ease. Sister came with what I call joyful faith in her very good friend, Jesus Christ.
Grateful for the faith, she was bouncy and energetic and her commitment to Jesus manifested itself in the opportunity to use her gifts and her unique role as one of the first African American religious sisters in our midst and especially back here in our own diocese.
She ministered well, blessed and gifted with an enthusiastic response to the challenging role – we have to be evangelizers. She was quite a “preacher!” She meant it, but her particular expression was that she did not need authorization to be a “preacher.” She was committed to Jesus Christ and through her baptism she was obliged and privileged to “preach” who Jesus is and what Jesus calls us to be in a very active and committed way of living in the church today.
She particularly brought to all of us an awareness out of faith and love that we are called to know and respect one another, to be willing to live together and share ways of bringing justice, but especially of bringing love and respect for all of our people and for one another. Being black, she especially was concerned with helping all of us live together, understanding one another and bringing the joy of an active Catholic life into prominence in our lives and into the way we live our culture today.
We also found in this woman a combination of patience and perseverance. She was patient in dealing with everyone, especially children and singing groups. She was also persevering in bringing the truth and coming again and again to the realization that we are all made in the image and likeness of God; we are saved by Jesus Christ and He has asked us to learn how to love one another as He has loved us.
I remember when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and she was concerned about making a trip to Africa for a very important conference. I urged her to make that trip and she did.  For a while she had a bit of remission but then the cancer came back and took her life tragically. She made an impression on so many people as she traveled in our diocese but especially even outside the diocese bringing the truth of love for one another with respect and bringing justice into this life both in our country and our church and the way we live together.
It is indeed a blessing that the Lord gave her to us for some time to be in our midst and to use the gifts of her faith, her energy, her personality, her joyful psalm of life, her ability to sing, but her call to us to be both persevering and patient.
I had the privilege of visiting with her warmly the evening before she died. She was committed to the Lord she loved and she was again asking us to continue that work of patient perserverance to bring about justice, love, truth and forgiveness.  She came to understand  what the faith meant and as the Lord called her to her heavenly reward, the Christian burial liturgy was one that was well planned and a magnificent display as so many gathered around the country here in Jackson for the joyful return of her to the Lord.
(Bishop William Houck is the retired bishop of the Diocese of Jackson.)


Sr. Thea: scholar, teacher, famous black woman

By Father Joe Dyer
Before reading this essay I want you to think of five famous people. Sr. Thea Bowman, FSPA, will be remembered as______________.  How would you complete that sentence?  There are many appropriate objects for such a tiny little preposition.  Some of them are, a theologian, a writer, a trouble maker, a musician, a preacher, an educator, a feminist, an orator, a sassy nun, the person who made Mike Wallace say “Black is Beautiful,” and others.
Stop.  Make that five famous black people.
We remember stories. My favorite is hearsay but, like the best gossip, it is too good not to pass on. It seems that she and Bishop Brunini were in the break room at the chancery and he teased her saying something like “the pope wants you nuns back in habits.”  She is said to have replied “Oh yeah!?!?
Is the pope going to pay for that expensive material that we had to use to make those habits? Is he going to pay for those overpriced shoes we could only get at one place? Is he going to pay for the purses we had to carry?” To which the bishop replied, “Sister Thea, you don’t want a pope, you want a sugar daddy!” Like I said, I wasn’t there but I can easily imagine those two Gospel-committed Mississippians funnin’ in the break room then going back to their offices to do the work of the church. There are many other stories, not all of them pleasant or funny.
Wait. Let’s make that five famous black women.
Before she died, Sister Thea became friends with the novelist, Margaret Walker. I listened to them share stories about people and places “back in the day;” I heard them analyze the current status of life in Mississippi and life in the world. They spoke to each other as friend to friend; believer to believer and as scholar to scholar. I was privileged to be in the presence of two amazing scholars (OK, and to have two amazing names to drop).
I repeat, two amazing SCHOLARS. Just wondering, when asked to name five famous people were any black?  When asked to name famous black people, how many are female? When asked to name famous black women, how many of the five are scholars? If you are not black, don’t feel picked-on. Educated blacks would probably not think of scholars when asked to name the famous. If asked, I think educated black people might need a minute to come up with the names of five black female scholars.
Sister Thea was a real scholar but when people reminisce about her I don’t think they imagine her in the library researching Thomas More and other thinkers of that time for her dissertation (remember, this was before God created the internet). Everyone knows she could preach, but what about developing a graduate-level course on black preaching, praxis and theory?
You know she was a natural singer, but she also studied voice in the convent – music teachers were amazed that she had the range of both a soprano and a contralto.  She lectured on Faulkner at Ole Miss and arranged for her students from Viterbo to come to Mississippi on a “Faulkner Tour” to get a first-hand experience of the sights and sounds and smells and the August light in his prose.  She also arranged for those students to live in the homes of black people in Canton, but that’s a different story. She loved Shakespeare.
Honor Sister Thea’s memory. Do right by it and the next time there is a bond issue for public education vote for it. Help future generations to be able to name scholars of every race and gender without biting off the erasers from their pencils.
P.S.  In addition to Margaret Walker and Sister Thea, here are a few names to help you along:  Angela Davis, Condoleeza Rice, Maya Angelou, Lani Guinier, Anita Hill.
(Father Joe Dyer is the pastor of Forest St. Michael and friend of Sister Thea Bowman, among other famous people.)



Anniversary offers chance to reflect on Sr. Bowman’s message, legacy



By Maureen Smith
CANTON – There is no doubt that Sister Thea Bowman, FSPA, possessed a presence. Many of those who knew her well speak of how she enveloped those around her with love, encouragement and positive energy, no matter if they were a life-long friend or someone she just met. March 30 will mark 25 years since she died in the Canton home where she grew up. She was a trailblazer in almost every role — first black nun from Canton, first to head an office of intercultural awareness, first black woman to address the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), but to those who grew up under her tutelage in Canton, she was a singular inspiration.
“Calling her an encourager – that’s not even a strong enough word,” said Cornelia Johnson, a student of Sister Bowman. “She was that person who went beyond seeing the good in every person. She helped that good come out more,” Johnson added. She spoke of how Sister Bowman seemed to know when a child was in need.
This week the editors at Mississippi Catholic asked some who knew her to reflect on her legacy and her call to evangelization. This issue also includes a Holy Week reflection she wrote weeks before her death.
Bertha Bowman was born in Yazoo City, the granddaughter of slaves, but daughter of a doctor and a teacher. She attended Canton Holy Child Jesus School, converted on her own at age eight and knew by her early teenage years that she was called to the consecrated life. Sister Bowman studied at Viterbo College in LaCrosse, Wisc., while preparing to enter the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. She went on to study at Catholic University.
She returned to Canton to teach and inspire the people in her community. “I was proud to have her be from Canton,” said former student Myrtle Jean Otto. Otto said she not only demanded excellence from her students, she wanted them to think beyond traditional roles. “She was a wonderful person to be around because you learned a lot from her. She wanted you to go to college and learn,” said Otto. “If you were not college material, she would encourage you to get a good trade,” she added.
Both Otto and Johnson said the fact that Sister Bowman was from Canton was a huge part of why so many looked up to her, but they also spoke of her compassion. “She had more of an impact because she was black, and she let us know we could do anything we wanted to do,” said Otto. This influence was especially important as Canton, and the nation, struggled after the Civil Rights Movement to define new roles for black people in business, society and within the Catholic Church.
Sister’s education and background led her to reflect upon the tensions of race and culture within the Catholic Church. She became a unique evangelizer. She did not advocate for a uniform worship including parts of different cultures. She called on church leadership to recognize the value of all cultural contributions within the church, to let people express their faith within their own cultural context.
Sister Bowman personally experienced the struggle. Mary Queen Donnelly, a white woman who grew up in   Canton and knew the Bowmans, expressed her version of Sister Bowman’s journey in a play to be staged in Madison in April. Donnelly described how Sister Bowman had to unite her black cultural background, with its characteristic music, storytelling, food and expressions, with the very conservative structures of the church. Bishop Brunini invited her to lead the Office of Intercultural Awareness for the Diocese of Jackson, but she didn’t stop there. She took her message across the nation, speaking at church gatherings and conventions. Music was especially important to her. She would gather or bring a choir with her and often burst into song during her presentations.
She invited church leaders to her hometown and immersed them in its culture. “She would call my mama and say, I have a guest coming, will you cook for me?” explained Otto. “And my mother would fix a meal for her, fried chicken with rice and gravy or gourmet biscuits or cornbread,” said Otto.
Sister Bowman got breast cancer at the height of her career. She continued her grueling travel schedule, even as the disease took her hair, her ability to speak and her strength. When Sister Bowman spoke at the USCCB gathering months before her death she was blunt. She told the bishops that people told her black expressions of music and worship were ‘un-Catholic.’ Sister Bowman challenged that notion, pointing out that the church universal included people of all races and cultures and she challenged the bishops to find ways to consult those of other cultures when making decisions. She told them they were obligated to better understand and integrate not just black Catholics, but people of all cultural backgrounds.
In a video of her appearance at the USCCB meeting, a crew of men lift her wheelchair onto the stage. She is wrapped in a blanket and slightly slumped over during the introductions. Once she is introduced, the blanket comes off. Sister Bowman begins singing and sits up straighter, drawing laughter and rapt attention as she gets more and more animated throughout the speech. At the end she orders the bishops to stand and sing ‘We Shall Overcome’ with her. They comply, even linking arms together to express their solidarity. Many in the video have tears in their eyes.
Otto said one of Sister Bowman’s talents was her ability to relate across social, racial and educational boundaries. “She could speak to everyone on their level, whether you had a college degree or were just a poor person,” said Otto. She and Johnson both said Sister Bowman had an uncanny ability to connect to people and challenge them. “I wanted to play the piano, but she discovered I can sing,” said Otto, who still sings for weddings, funerals and weekly liturgies.
“Because of her, I grew to be the woman I think God wanted me to be,” said Johnson. She credits Sister Bowman and Sister Antonia Ebo with saving her life. Johnson was in a terrible car accident. When she arrived at the hospital she was blind and could not speak because of a tracheotomy. “In my mind, I could see Sister Thea (Bowman) singing in front of a large choir. She was singing ‘hold on, just a little while longer,’” said Johnson. “I tell you – ‘hold on’ got me through,” She said Sister Ebo came and prayed with her daily as well.
“When Sister Thea (Bowman) came back from the meeting of the Black Catholic Congress she walked in my room and took my hand and I knew at that moment I would walk out of that hospital and I would be fine. I felt her love when she touched me,” said Johnson. When Johnson did return home, she began acting as an assistant to Sister Bowman, taking her phone calls while the nun traveled all around the nation delivering speeches, singing and bringing her message to the church. “This little light of mine” was one of Sister Bowman’s favorite songs. Those who knew her all said she would want her legacy to be one of continuing encouragement. Otto, Johnson and Donnelly all said Sister Bowman only wanted people to do their best – to follow their vocations to the best of their abilities – to be the best nurse, the best mother, the best Christian they could be, a worthy challenge indeed.