CANTON – The people of Holy Child Jesus Parish opened their doors this weekend to honor their native daughter, Sister Thea Bowman, FSPA, with a history program and Mass to mark the 25th anniversary of her death. Father Maurice Nutt, CSsR, the head of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University was the keynote for both events.
The Saturday program started with a drum call. Several children from the parish then presented the symbols of soil, a plant and water – each one speaking about the symbol as they placed them on the ambo. Several choirs joined in the celebration, singing some of Sister Thea’s favorite songs.
Attendees also enjoyed parts of a video about Sister Thea’s life, closing with a clip of her singing ‘This little light of mine,’ which the audience was invited to join. Father Nutt was also the principal celebrant of a Mass for the combined Camden Sacred Heart and Holy Child Jesus parish communities on Sunday.
“I am the priest that I am today because of the influence, the prayers, the support and encouragement of Thea Bowman. She was my teacher, she was my friend, she was my spiritual mother,” said Father Nutt in an interview before the program. Father Nutt spoke about how he would like to see a cause opened to pursue sainthood for the nun. “I would really say that she is the apostle for racial reconciliation – being the former director of inter-cultural awareness here in the diocese but even in the life she lived.
“She was all about, ‘I want my black friends to know my white friends, my Latino friends, my Asian friends. She was about bringing people together. When I say it’s so timely now, look at all of the ‘black lives matter’ issues facing the nation and it seems like it’s not quitting. Every time you see there is another incident and a lot of it is that we need dialogue and understanding among the races,” he said.
He believes if Thea had not died of cancer in 1990 she would have responded in person to the violence in Ferguson, Mo., last year. “I believe that she needs to be held up by the Catholic Church as someone who can intercede for/with us as an example and model, someone who loved her own black self, but was not limited to loving only herself. She wanted others to come together to love one another.
I often think about what Thea would have been saying about all of these incidents of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. I would see her going to Ferguson. I would see her going there to bring peace and reconciliation and being able to talk to the young people, not to act out violently, but to bring people to understand one another’s culture and be at the heart of the issue,” he said.
Judge Mamie Chinn, a contemporary of Thea’s, agreed. Chinn, who was part of the program Saturday, said Thea would have urged today’s leaders to talk to young people, especially young black men. “We should ask ourselves ‘what is my purpose and how can I draw upon this woman,’” to achieve that purpose.
Father Nutt spoke about how he met Sister Thea at the Institute for Black Catholic Studies a few months after his mother died. Sister Thea had lost her own parents the year before. Their shared loss became a life-long bond. Sister Thea would go on to instruct Father Nutt in the art of preaching. He said she was a stern, but loving teacher. “I believe she still intercedes with me before I preach, her spirit still remains with me, but the crazy thing is I graduated the year before she died. I never would have dreamed I would go on to get a doctorate in preaching so I could teach. I now teach the courses she taught,” he said.
He spoke about how Sister Thea’s work has to continue, especially with the influx of immigrants into the American church. “What does being Catholic mean? That’s the question – we think that being Catholic means to be culturalist or not any specific race – ‘we’re just Catholics.’ That is not true and it has never been true,” he explained. “All ethnic groups and cultures have expressed their faith through their culture. As African American Catholics – because we for so long were a missionary church – we had to assimilate to the cultures of the parishes we were entering. Today we are called to come fully functioning and share our gifts,” he said. “People say – ‘they should just be Catholic.’ What that means is ‘they should act the way I act.’ Catholicism means universal, it doesn’t mean uniformity or conformity. It means you come to yourself as whoever you are, as God’s blessed children, whatever culture that is, bringing your best gifts to the service of God and the church,” he added.
During the program he told the story of Thea’s life from her days as Bertha Bowman, daughter of Canton’s only black doctor and a teacher, to the freedom of expression she gained from her education and exposure to the teachings of Vatican II. He said she found solace in the African American Catholic community at Catholic University. “Thea welcomed the documents of Vatican II that said ‘I can come into my church and not leave my black self at the door. I will come in like David came into the temple with my songs and my dance and my praise,’” said Father Nutt.
He told the story of how he gained a whole new understanding of his role in the church through his classes with Sister Thea. “Her classes were more than academic lectures, they were life-changing theological experiences,” he said. Sister Thea, he explained, did not think of preaching as something reserved for church on Sunday. She preached in the street, in the schools, in meetings, on the road, wherever she felt the need to speak the truth and spread the Gospel. He said he himself had tried to assimilate to his new surroundings in the seminary. In his Sunday homily he joked that he had quit “eating collard greens and started eating sauerkraut,” but discovered that he could be both black – culturally, musically and in his style of preaching – and Catholic, through Sister Thea’s example.
“I equate Thea with her name – which is an experience of God. Thea is the feminine for Theo, which is God in Greek so you encounter God when you meet Thea. And if you want a God experience, meet Thea,” said Father Nutt.