Fr. Stephen Van Lal Than

Sister Thea Bowman, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, is shown during a talk she gave at St. Augustine Church in Washington in 1986. Sister Bowman, who died in 1990, is one of six African American Catholics whose causes for canonization are being considered by the Catholic Church. Her sainthood cause was opened in 2018 and she has the title “Servant of God.” (OSV News photo/CNS file, Michael Hoyt, Catholic Standard)

Black Americans on the road to sainthood: Servant of God Sr. Thea Bowman, FSPA


This month we examine the life of a 20th century contemporary saint.

Bertha Elizabeth Bowman was born Dec. 29, 1937, the only child of a middle-aged physician father, Dr. Theon Bowman, and a teacher mother, Mary Esther Bowman in Yazoo, Miss. Although raised in a Methodist home in Canton, Miss., like many Black children whose parents wanted the “best” education for their children in those times, Bertha attended Catholic schools which were run by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. Impressed with “how Catholics put their faith into action,” she converted to Catholicism as a child and joined the order at the age of 15, becoming the only Black member of her religious community. In her religious profession, she was given the name, “Sr. Mary Thea” in honor of the Blessed Mother and her father, Theon. Her name in religious life, Thea, literally means “God.” 

Sr. Thea was an educator. She earned her degrees in education and English, culminating in a PhD in English in 1972 from Catholic University of America.  She taught at the middle school and high school levels, eventually becoming a college professor of English and linguistics at Viterbo College, Catholic University of America, and Xavier University in New Orleans. In his book “Eleven Modern Mystics,” Victor M. Parachi notes Sr. Thea’s impact upon Catholic liturgical music in providing an intellectual, spiritual, historical, and cultural foundation for developing and legitimizing a distinct worship form for Black Catholics. Sr. Thea explained: “When we understand our history and culture, then we can develop the ritual, the music and the devotional expression that satisfy us in the Church.”  Sr. Thea became instrumental in the 1987 publication of a new Catholic hymnal, “Lead Me, Guide Me: The African American Catholic Hymnal,” the first such work directed to the Black community. Auxiliary Bishop James P. Lyke of Cleveland also coordinated the hymnal project, saying it was born of the needs and aspirations of Black Catholics. Sr. Thea was actively involved in selecting hymns to be included and wrote the essay titled “The Gift of African American Sacred Song,” stating that “Black sacred song is soulful song” and described it in five ways: 

  1. Holistic: challenging the full engagement of mind, imagination, memory, feeling, emotion, voice, and body; 
  2. Participatory: inviting the worshiping community to join in contemplation, in celebration and in prayer; 
  3. Real: celebrating the immediate concrete reality of the worshiping community – grief or separation, struggle or oppression, determination or joy – bringing that reality to prayer within the community of believers; 
  4. Spirit-filled: energetic, engrossing, intense; 
  5. Life-giving: refreshing, encouraging, consoling, invigorating, sustaining.

Blessed with extraordinary gifts, Sr. Thea was a singer, poet, preacher, master teacher, evangelist, and an African American catalyst/advocate who also participated in the establishment of The Institute of Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University, which provides certification, continuing education and a graduate degree in Black Catholic Ministry. 

In her role as a Black Catholic consultant, Sr. Thea gave presentations across the country; lively gatherings that combined singing, Gospel preaching, prayer and storytelling. Her programs were directed to break down racial and cultural barriers. She encouraged people to communicate with one another so that they could understand other cultures and races. 

Sr. Thea returned to her home state of Mississippi and served as Director of Intercultural Awareness for the Diocese of Jackson. Just months before her death from cancer, she spoke to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1989 from her wheelchair, and the bishops “powerfully and visibly moved,” applauded her. When she finished, they stood linking arms and singing as Thea led them in the spiritual, “We Shall Overcome.”

A cause for canonization was opened for Sr. Thea by the Diocese of Jackson in mid-2018, gaining her an official designation as a Servant of God, the first of the four steps toward sainthood. 

She shared her culture and spirituality by preaching and with prayer at more than 100 venues across the nation per year. In the early 1980s she said that, “I want people to remember that I tried to love the Lord and that I tried to love them.”  

Her tombstone holds the simple yet profound inscription, “She tried.” 

The 25th anniversary of her death brought forth numerous tributes. Her 1988 albums, “Songs of My People” and “’Round the Glory Manger,” released on stereo audiocassette by the Daughters of St. Paul, were re-released in 2020 for the 30th anniversary of her death under the title, “Songs of My People: The Complete Collection.” 

F. Veronica Wilhite is the director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministry in the Diocese of Owensboro.


Nutt, Maurice J. An Hour with Thea Bowman. (pamphlet) Liguori, MO: Liguori Nutt, Maurice J. Thea Bowman: Faithful and Free. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, Publications, 2018. ISBN 978-0-7648-2809-6. 

Smith, Charlene; Feister, John. Thea’s Song: The Life of Thea Bowman. Orbis Books, 2010. ISBN 978-1-5707-5868-3. 

Works:  Bowman, Thea (1987). “The Gift of African American Sacred Song” (PDF). Lead Me, Guide Me. Chicago, IL: GIA Publishing. ISBN 978-9-9922-3304-7.Bowman, Thea (June 19, 1989). “Transcript” (PDF). 

Address to U.S. Bishops (Official video). Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Bowman, Thea; Cepress, Celestine (1993). Sister Thea Bowman, Shooting Star: Selected Writings and Speeches. La Crosse, WI: Saint Mary’s Press. ISBN 978-0-8848-9302-8. OCLC 28935744. 

Bowman, Thea; Nutt, Maurice J. (2009). Thea Bowman: In My Own Words. Liguori, MO: Liguori Publications. ISBN 978-0-7648-1782-3. – index of Bowman’s speeches, writings, and interviews, with a brief biographical sketch and epilogue. 

Current Issue

Publisher |  Bishop William F. Medley
Editor |  Elizabeth Wong Barnstead
Contributors |  Riley Greif, Rachel Hall
Layout |  Rachel Hall
Send change of address requests to [email protected]