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Sister Thea Bowman offers a prophetic witness for the Church and our country today, priest says

Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration who is one of six African American Catholics whose causes for canonization are being considered by the Catholic Church, is shown during a talk she gave at St. Augustine Church in Washington, D.C., in 1986. On Feb. 15, 2022, Father Manuel Williams, a priest of the Congregation of the Resurrection, gave a talk at The Catholic University of America on how Sister Thea Bowman’s life and legacy can help the Catholic Church and this country face today’s challenges. (Catholic Standard file photo by Michael Hoyt, an uncropped version of this photo appears at the end of this article)

In the fall of 1979, Manuel Williams drove to a neighboring Alabama parish to hear a talk by Sister Thea Bowman, a dynamic Catholic speaker and evangelist known for her joyful singing and storytelling and how she challenged the Church to welcome the gifts of Black Catholics and celebrate their African heritage that had shaped their culture and faith. 

Remembering the first time he saw the tall woman religious wearing an African dress, he said, “She strode on the stage as well as any Broadway actress or denizen of the performing arts would do. On top of her head she had these meticulous braids you could almost describe as a crown. She was captivating.”

Sister Thea, he remembered, had a style all her own. “She smiled. She taught. She told stories. She chastised. She affirmed. She cajoled, and she punctuated it all with a searing and a soaring (singing) voice.”

And afterward, Sister Thea met him and encouraged him to become a priest, grabbing his hand and staring at him intently as she said, “Please do it. The Church needs you. We need you.”

More than 40 years later, Father Manuel Williams, ordained as a priest of the Congregation of the Resurrection in 1987, remembered the impact Sister Thea would have on his life.

“That October afternoon was the beginning of a personal, formational and a mentoring relationship that listed until sister’s death in 1990,” he said.

Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman is now one of six African American Catholics whose causes for canonization are under consideration by the Catholic Church.

Father Williams reflected on her life and legacy and her message for today in a Feb. 15, 2022 talk at The Catholic University of America titled, “The Wisdom of Sister Thea Bowman for a Church in Crisis.” The talk was sponsored by Catholic University’s Center for Cultural Engagement, the university’s campus ministry and by the Catholic ministry at Howard University in Washington, and the audience included students and staff members from both universities.

In a way, the talk marked a homecoming for Sister Thea Bowman, a native of Mississippi and Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration who earned her master’s degree and her doctorate degree in English from Catholic University. In 2020, Catholic University formed the Sister Thea Bowman Committee to offer recommendations for promoting racial equality on that campus, and the committee’s recommendations included focusing on recruiting and retaining diverse students, faculty and staff and offering more diverse academic programs and course content.

Father Robert Boxie III, the chaplain at Howard University and a priest of The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, offered the opening prayer, praying that Sister Thea’s words, example and ministry might help bring healing for the Church, this country and the world.

The priest, who like Father Williams is a member of the guild promoting her cause for canonization, later noted, “Sister Thea was known for her love of community and for bringing people together.”

Father Manuel B. Williams, who is director of Resurrection Catholic Missions of the South and pastor of Resurrection Catholic Church in Montgomery, Alabama, speaks during a luncheon at The Catholic University of America in Washington Feb. 15, 2022, about the late Sister Thea Bowman, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration from Canton, Mississippi, who is a candidate for sainthood. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

When he addressed the gathering, Father Williams followed the example of his mentor Sister Thea, and interspersed his talk by singing the lines of some spirituals, in between making heartfelt pleas for justice and understanding as she had done in her life.

Father Williams began by singing the refrain from the hymn, “So Glad I’m Here in Jesus’ Name.”

Like Sister Thea too, his talk spanning several serious issues also included humor, as when he poked fun at her famous singing style, saying, “Those of us who knew her well and felt as if we had some license to say so, would occasionally hint to Sister that pitch was not always her friend, but that never stopped her from singing.”

Remembering the first time he heard Sister Thea speak, Father Williams said he was struck by how her songs and words celebrated her African American heritage and her Catholic spiritual tradition.

“It was a presentation. It was also a preaching. It was a performance, and it was a prayer. It resonated deeply within my soul and deeply within my mind,” he said.

Sister Thea – who taught at Catholic schools in the elementary, high school and college levels before becoming a nationally known evangelist and speaker – would later have the future Father Williams in her classroom, when as a seminarian he took her class on “Black Religion and the Arts” at the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans.

The priest, now an adjunct instructor at that institute in addition to serving as the director of Resurrection Catholic Missions of the South and as the pastor of Resurrection Parish in his hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, reflected on Sister Thea’s enduring legacy.

“At this moment in our Church and in our country’s history, we need to hear the wisdom and the insights of Sister Thea, perhaps more than ever,” he said. “Her words, her example, her call to family and holiness is deeply needed in the Church and even more desperately needed in the country.”

Sister Thea Bowman, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration who was a nationally known Catholic evangelist known for her joyful singing and storytelling and who celebrated the gifts that Black Catholics bring to the Church, is one of six African American Catholics whose causes for sainthood are under consideration by the Catholic Church. (Artwork courtesy of the National Black Catholic Congress)

Father Williams decried political leadership in recent years that he said has seemingly opened a Pandora’s box of racism and other societal ills that people believed they had overcome decades ago, and for an example, he decried actions by state legislatures across the country that he said would limit the voting rights of people of color.

“Imagine what Sister Thea would say in 2022,” he said of the woman religious who had worked to promote voting registration among minority communities.

The priest also expressed regret about how increasingly partisan political divisions have also seemed to impact how people of faith regard each other.

“What would she say to those of us in the Church who sometimes are mimicking the partisanship and the distrust of each other based on political views?” he asked. Later he added, “Sister Thea would expect us to receive each other with love.”

Father Williams, who also preaches revivals and missions throughout the United States, said he believes that Sister Thea would say that the Church and this country today need “the gift of proximity. Thea believed in the gospel of encounter… She would say we need to get closer to each other. We need to encounter each other in real space and in real time and real situations” to build mutual understanding.

Addressing problems like systematic racism is something that people of color cannot do alone, he said, noting that Sister Thea emphasized the importance of people collaborating and working together for justice in a community, “people who would walk with us and talk with us and pray with us… so we can make the Gospel real.”

That work, he said, is not just for political leaders and the church hierarchy, but for people in their everyday lives who can make a difference even in a small way, and he told the story of how Sister Thea praised a priest who helped calm an unruly child, because the little boy saw “compassion in his eyes.”

Students and other guests at The Catholic University of America in Washington listen to Father Manuel B. Williams, director of Resurrection Catholic Missions of the South and pastor of Resurrection Catholic Church in Montgomery, Alabama, speak on Feb. 15, 2022 about Sister Thea Bowman’s life and legacy.(CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

Noting how Sister Thea addressed the challenge of racism and racial injustice head-on, Father Williams said, “I think Sister Thea would say to us in the Church and in the country, especially in this age of rampant and bold and unrepentant and revived racism in so many aspects of our culture and our politics, she would say we need to proclaim the gift of blackness.”

Remembering Sister Thea’s heart-to-heart speech to the U.S. bishops at their 1989 meeting at Seton Hall University when she was dying of cancer, he noted how she emphasized that as a Black Catholic, she came to the Church with her story, her culture, her music and her religious tradition. He said over the generations, that spirit has helped Black individuals and families survive slavery, Jim Crow-era segregation, enduring racism and current problems like mass incarceration.

“She would, unequivocally, I think, support the Black Lives Matter movement,” the priest said, explaining that “she would say, ‘When is the last time we had to agree with everything somebody says and does in order for us to support them on the things we do with them?’”

Sister Thea, he said, would emphasize the need for people to collaborate and seek common ground, and he said in a practical way, that might mean “we need to expand the notion of family.” He added that people still need to maintain and hold up the ideal of the traditional family, but he noted how in his state of Alabama, tens of thousands of children are living in a foster care system, and too many later end up in the criminal justice system because as children they were “not nurtured and supported and loved.”

The priest also noted another contemporary problem, how environmental issues especially impact the poor and people of color, and he pointed out how thousands of people in an Alabama county lack access to indoor water and sanitation, leading to people suffering and dying from diseases and infections.

“In the fullness of her African American and her Franciscan tradition, I think Thea would challenge all of us to be better stewards of this planet. She would challenge all of us, especially in the way environmental racism affects the Brown and the Black community,” Father Williams said. 

He added, “She would very much be inspired by our Holy Father Francis… She would be inspired by his teaching and his calling us to be cognizant of Mother Earth, because in some ways it is the ultimate life issue, because we don’t have to worry about our unborn children if the planet becomes uninhabitable.”

Father Manuel Williams, a priest of the Congregation of the Resurrection, said in a Feb. 15, 2022 talk at The Catholic University that Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman’s life and message can help the Catholic Church and this country face challenges of today. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

Father Williams said Sister Thea would encourage Catholics “to speak prophetic words to people and institutions of power and influence.”

Sister Thea he said, would insist that people adopt “a radical and consistent ethic of life,” upholding that life begins at conception and working to protect vulnerable unborn children, but also after those children are born, helping to provide them with health care, education and family support, so “he or she will reach that potential that God has placed in him or her.”

The priest said that ethic of life would mean that people should not align themselves with those who are “pro-life” about unborn children but reflect what Saint John Paul II called the “culture of death” in everything else they advocate.

Returning to the issue of voting rights and new state laws that critics contend have limited those rights for people of color, Father Williams pointed out how his 88-year-old father, who marched for voting rights in Alabama more than 50 years ago, has taken up walking again, explaining to his son, “It looks like we’re going to have to march again for our voting rights.”

Noting how Sister Thea spoke out boldly against injustice, Father Williams said that in regard to voting rights, the nation’s bishops “can’t be silent about what’s happening in this country. It’s not partisan. It’s prophetic. People died for that privilege.” 

Sister Thea would encourage Catholics “to embrace anew the Gospel of peace and justice,” he said, noting that she underscored the importance of seeking holiness and also working to transform society “so it resembles more closely the kingdom of heaven we all say we aspire to.”

Sister Thea Bowman is now recognized with the title of “Servant of God,” an initial step of the canonization process. Father Williams said that while he hopes to live to see her recognized as a saint some day, he said that “in the interim, I ask for her intercession every day, that I will be faithful to my religious life and priesthood… that I can be a good representative of the best of the African American Catholic tradition, that I can be faithful to the best of the American tradition.”

Underscoring how people of faith can live out the Gospel and advocate for justice within their spheres of influence, the priest sang part of the spiritual, “Walk Together Children.”

Concluding his talk, Father Williams said, “Sisters and brothers, let us all commit ourselves to that journey. Jesus is the way, and He is our destination.”

Afterward, Christiana Bennett, an architecture student at Howard University, said she was inspired by how Sister Thea showed “that culture can coincide within religion. As she said, ‘It’s a gift to bring that Africanness to the Church.’”

Bennett said she also appreciated how Father Williams pointed out that “you shouldn’t put your values or your faith on the back of any (political) party. They’re not your God. Your faith is your moral compass, your loving God is your moral compass.”

Peter Trossbach, a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Washington studying at Catholic University, said Sister Thea offered an inspiring example of faith. “Everything about her was marked by her love for the Lord,” he said.

In a 1986 photo, Sister Thea Bowman speaks at St. Augustine Church in Washington, D.C., the mother church for Black Catholics in the nation’s capital that was founded in 1858 by free men and women of color including people emancipated from slavery. Sister Thea, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration who died in 1990, is one of six African American Catholics whose causes for canonization are under consideration by the Catholic Church. (Catholic Standard photo/Michael Hoyt)