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August 3rd, 2012

Sister Thea Bowman: Living Joyfully

 
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Country: United States
Born: December 29, 1937
Died: March 30, 1990
Religion: Roman Catholic, Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration
Sister Thea Bowman was an esteemed educator, talented singer, gifted leader, powerful preacher, and a passionate bridge-builder across racial divides within the Christian community.

As a religious, a scholar and a teacher, Sister Thea Bowman, F.S.P.A., was engaged in sharing her experience as an African-American woman coming of age in Mississippi in the 1940s. She persisted in telling her story because it was the story of millions of other people — people who generally did not have the opportunity to tell their own stories. She wanted folks from all walks of life to understand where she was coming from. She wanted them to see where she was headed. She was the granddaughter of slaves. She was a convert to Catholicism at the age of 12. She was the first African-American member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. She was a respected, lettered, preeminent scholar of William Faulkner. She was an artist whose dramatic command of language and beautiful voice endeared her to people and allowed them to imagine themselves as part of the narrative of African-American culture, spirituality, celebration and suffering that she was weaving before their eyes. She was a tenacious advocate for the creation of the first African-American Catholic hymnal. She was a trusted advisor to the American bishops in their efforts to encourage and celebrate the flourishing of a uniquely African-American expression of Catholicism that deserved to be understood as legitimate, beautiful and prophetic. She was a warrior who fought against the cancer that ultimately claimed her life. Sister Thea did all of these things with a deep and abiding joy.

Joy does not mean ease or passivity. Sister Thea did not live an easy life and she was, by no means, passive. Joy, as Sister Thea lived it, meant living authentically. It meant celebrating who she was by worshipping the God who made her. When asked to address the bishops on the topic “What does it mean to be Black and Catholic?” Sister Thea answered, “It means that I come to my Church fully functioning. That doesn’t frighten you, does it?” She was a proponent of wholeness… her own and that of all people. She loved the Church for its universality, its sacramentality and its beauty. She wanted her Church — the Catholic Church in America with its both triumphant and troubled history in regards to slavery, abolition and civil rights — to love her back. She was unflinching in her desire to be authentically Thea and to be authentically Catholic. The pursuit of this end (though often difficult) was a source of great joy, which radiated from her and lit up bishops and clergy and lay folks and whole communities.

The memory of Sister Thea calls us to participate in this same quest for wholeness… to find our ourselves in the same place we find our God in the Eucharist… to walk into our churches as fully functioning individuals… to find joy in friendship with God and neighbor and to live that joy with all we are and all we hope to become… to realize that we can be [fill in the blank] and Catholic and be both authentically.

 
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The Author : Caitlin Kennell Kim
Caitlin Kennell Kim is a full-time baby wrangler, writer, and ponderer of all things theological. She earned her Masters of Divinity in Pastoral Ministry and Theology from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. She currently lives in Northeast Ohio with her husband and their four small children.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Daphne DeMills

    CAITLIN, THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THIS ARTICLE ON SISTER THEA. I MET SISTER THEA IN 1985 AT A REVIVAL AND WAS BLESSED BY HER. IN 1992, AFTER HER TRANSISTION I WAS AGAIN BLESSED WITH MUSIC THAT WAS MY INSPIRATION TO CREATE MY “UNIVERSE IS CALLING” CD. I KNOW THAT SISTER THEA IS STILL BUSY WORKING FOR THE LORD THROUGH US.

  • MARIE WATSON

    SR THEA WAS THE BEST ! THOSE OF US WHO MET HER PERSONALLY WERE TRULY BLESSED BEYOND MEASURE WITH HER LOVE ,PEACEFUL SPIRIT AND CONTAGIOUS JOY. THANK YOU CATLIN FOR REMINDING ME …TO BE TRULY AUTHENTIC IN ALL AREAS OF MY LIFE. LOVE THE EXERCISES!!! MARIE

  • Susan

    I totally agree with the prior comments. It inspires me to become a more active “me”.

  • Bern

    Thanks Caitlin–can’t ever hear enough about Sr. Thea! For those who might want to know more of her story, see the Christopher-Award winning biography Thea’s Song.(www.orbisbooks.com)

  • tacy

    Wow! So good. You inspire me with your writing about her. And she was an amazing woman!

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