By Maureen Smith
JACKSON – Bishop Joseph Kopacz read the edict to open the cause for canonization for Sister Thea Bowman, FSPA, Servant of God, at a Sunday, Nov. 18, Mass at the Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle in downtown Jackson, Mississippi. The church was packed with people who loved Sister Thea and can’t wait to see her become a saint.
Days before the Mass, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops unanimously voted in support of the cause moving forward during their general assembly in Baltimore. Sister Bowman, a Mississippi native and the only African-American member of her order, the Wisconsin-based Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, was a widely known speaker, evangelizer and singer until she died of cancer in 1990 at age 52. She even made a presentation at the U.S. bishops’ spring meeting in 1989, moving some prelates to tears.
Some of the songs she sang at that bishop’s meeting took center stage at the Mass. Phyllis Lewis-Hale, a professor from Jackson State University sang “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” as a prelude to the Mass and brought the congregation to its feet with “We Shall Overcome” after communion. Everyone in the church spontaneously joined hands and swayed as they sang with Lewis-Hale – much like the bishops did in 1989.
Lewis-Hale teaches opera and traditional voice classes, but also teaches classes in Negro Spirituals. “Those spirituals go across denominations – they are cultural so I have known these songs all my life,” she said. She believes people can find comfort and support during these times if they “go back to the soothing comforting words of spirituals,” she added. She said she was honored to be a part of the celebration. “I am glad Sister Thea has been given this recognition and this honor and I hope this can come to fulfillment.”
Members of the choir from Sister Thea’s home parish of Canton Holy Child Jesus offered “Be Encouraged” during communion. Bernadette Otto-Russell, one of the singers, first sang in Sister Thea’s choir when she was in the third grade. “This was awesome. This is an enjoyable and memorable moment – I’m getting full just thinking about it. I think the people that know Sister Thea – they know who she is and they will always cherish her and also her memories. She will never die,” said Otto-Russell, adding that it was a joy and an honor to sing for her childhood teacher.
Carolyn Brooks and her mother Jean Brooks came from out of town to attend the Mass. When the younger Brooks attended Christ the King School she met Sister Thea. Brooks called her an inspiration both in her childhood and today. Jean Brooks called the Mass “inspirational,” adding that “we need the spirit from this service in this day and age.”
The postulator, Dr. Andrea Ambrosi and his assistant, Nina Bartulica, sat in the front pew with representatives from Sister Thea’s religious community, the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, Sister Eileen McKenzie, president; Sister Marla Lang and Sister Helen Elsbernd, both classmates of Sister Thea and Sister Dorothy Kundinger, Sister Thea’s assistant during her illness.
“She was my sister and my friend,” said Sister Kundinger, who was all smiles after the Mass, greeting friends and enjoying the moment.
A delegation of students from Sister Thea Bowman Catholic School in Jackson handed out prayer cards after Mass. The students were thrilled to be a part of this historic moment for their school’s namesake. Sixth-grader Alexander Mason said he and his fellow students know the story of her life and have learned many lessons from Sister Thea’s mantra that she wanted to live until she died. “She taught me to always have perseverance and that I should never give up – even if I am close to death, I should keep on pushing myself to try,” said Mason.
In his homily Bishop Kopacz quoted the old testament reading for the day from the Book of Daniel “The wise shall shine like the splendor of the firmament. Those who lead the many to justice shall be like the stars forever.” He spoke of Sister Thea’s wisdom and joy and holiness, saying that today “her holiness shines upon us.”
(The Diocese of Jackson has launched a website detailing Sister Thea’s life and the cause for canonization, sistertheabowman.com.)