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Black nun being examined for sainthood

'She touched everybody's heart,' Homewood pastor says in recalling his encounters with Sister Thea Bowman

Friday, November 28, 2003

By Ervin Dyer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Sister Thea Bowman's pleas for racial understanding could move men to tears. At a U.S. Catholic bishops' conference in 1990, she told the mostly white Catholic hierarchy that black is beautiful.

 
 

Sunday Mass

Sister Thea will be celebrated at Sunday Mass at Corpus Christi Church, 1550 Lincoln Ave., Larimer, at 10:30 a.m. and a film on her life will be shown afterward. For more information, call 412-731-3020.

   
 
 

"God didn't make junk," she said, challenging the bishops to do more to celebrate the gifts and legacy of black American Catholics.

Though Sister Thea, as she was called, was weakened by bone cancer and used a wheelchair, she drew from the Negro spiritual and was "in no ways tired."

She spoke of an old-time religion that bound people in love and then went on to lead the bishops in singing "We Shall Overcome."

When she finished, the bishops wept, gave her a standing ovation and lined the hallway to greet the frail black woman draped in African robes as she exited the building.

"She touched everybody's heart," said the Rev. David Taylor of Homewood's St. Charles Lwanga parish, as he recalled the conference and his personal meetings with Sister Thea.

"She could go into any place and spiritualize it."

From a rural crossroads town in Mississippi, Sister Thea began a journey that made her a nationally known speaker, singer, liturgist and advocate of black spirituality.

Before she died of cancer at 52 in 1990, her work landed her a spot on CBS Television's "60 Minutes." Harry Belafonte met her in Mississippi in 1989 in hopes of doing a movie on her life. Novelist Margaret Walker Alexander started but never finished a biography of Sister Thea.

The Catholic Church has begun the process of closely examining her life to see if she is worthy of canonization, but to those who knew her, Sister Thea is already a saint.

There are black women among the church's 4,500 saints, most notably St. Monica, the mother of the North African St. Augustine, who is credited with shaping Catholic theology, but no American black women.

Besides Sister Thea, two other black American women are being considered for sainthood: Mother Mary Lange, who started Baltimore's Oblate Sisters of Providence in 1829, and Mother Henriette DeLille, who founded an order restricted to black women in New Orleans in 1842.

But Sister Thea, who has been called Mother Teresa with soul, is a contemporary figure.

There are 62 million American Catholics -- about 2 million of them black. It would have powerful resonance to see someone like Sister Thea -- who walked among them -- elevated to saint.

"She left us -- African-Americans -- more encouragement to be who we are and to be more effective leaders in the church," said Taylor.

Sister Thea is recalled each March at Duquesne University, which holds a dinner in her honor to raise scholarship funds for black students. The recognition moves beyond the campus Sunday as a Pittsburgh tri-parish committee commemorates Sister Thea as part of its yearlong Celebration of Black Saints.

"She did so much to affirm blacks in the church," said Taylor. "Her sainthood would be a victory for us all."

Sister Thea, the granddaughter of slaves, was born "Bertha" in Yazoo City, Miss. Her father was a physician and her mother a teacher. Public schools in the Mississippi Delta were so bad that after five years, Sister Thea still could not read.

Her distraught parents, who highly valued education, sent her to the Holy Child Jesus, a school for black children run by the Franciscan order of the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.

The dedicated nuns never shied from "begging" for better books or gym clothes; they had the strong students tutor the weaker ones; they involved the children's parents in fund-raising.

Sister Thea was baptized Episcopalian and raised as a Methodist, but, because of the strong influence of the sisters, became a Catholic at 10. Her life was shaped by their work.

"I had witnessed so many Catholic priests, brothers and sisters who made a difference that was far-reaching. I wanted to be part of the effort to help feed the hungry, find shelter for the homeless and teach the children," she wrote 13 years ago when preparing notes for an autobiography in a Catholic magazine.

At 15, she entered the Rose Convent in LaCrosse, Wis., as a first step toward becoming a Franciscan nun, taking the name Thea. She was the first and only black person at the convent.

Sister Thea went on to earn master's and doctorate degrees in literature and linguistics and became a national presence for promoting intercultural understanding.

She started in her own back yard, going home in 1978 to help care for her elderly parents and teaching about the Native American and black American heritage in Mississippi.

"The heck with the melting pot," she once wrote. "If you want to melt and fit into my mold, if you want to adopt my values and way of life, go right ahead, but don't expect me to melt to fit into yours."

Sister Thea preached that for Africans, Asians and Hispanics to assimilate or melt into the pot was to become "half gray."

It was a dulling of the cultures that she thought robbed people of the "richness, beauty, wholeness and harmony of what God created."


Ervin Dyer can be reached at edyer@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1410.

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