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Panel discussion praises Sister Thea Bowman for ‘challenging us to hunger and thirst for justice’

Participants in the May 3, Georgetown University dialogue "'Sister Thea Bowman: Faithful Life, Powerful Legacy, Continuing Lessons” are (from left to right) Sister of Notre Dame de Namur Patricia Chappell, Shannen Dee Williams, John Carr, Ogechi Akalegbere, and Cardinal Wilton Gregory. (Georgetown University photo/Rafael Suanes)

Just after naming the chapel in its Copley Hall after Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman on May 3, Georgetown University hosted a panel discussion on the legacy of the late woman religious who was a nationally known evangelist, teacher and advocate for greater engagement of African Americans in the Catholic Church.

“We gather not to just name something, honor someone, but to lift up Sister Thea and her life and her legacy,” said John Carr, co-director of the university’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, and moderator the dialogue.

The discussion was part of Georgetown University’s Dahlgren Dialogues series, co-sponsored by the university’s Office of Mission & Ministry and the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life.

Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory, one of the panelists discussing the legacy of Sister Thea, said that despite the stresses and trauma caused by the George Floyd murder, racial unrest, the COVID pandemic and the war in Ukraine, “one of the things I would think Sister Thea would want us to remember – especially at this juncture in our history – is don’t lose heart.”

“Sister Thea would want us to remember that God is always in charge,” Cardinal Gregory said. “There are many reasons to dwell on what makes us downhearted. Sister Thea would say, ‘This cannot and must not overpower you. Get up and keep walking.’ She was a woman of consummate hope. We need people of hope to speak to our hearts.”

He recalled his first meeting with her in 1984 when he was serving as an auxiliary bishop of Chicago.

“I was just mesmerized. She was just full of life. I said to myself, ‘You can learn a lot from this woman.’ It was just a wonderful experience that first time,” the cardinal said. “She was a woman who understood who she was, and invited everyone else to make that discovery about themselves.”

Other panelists included Ogechi Akalegbere, the 2021 winner of the Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development who is the Christian service coordinator at Connelly School of the Holy Child in Potomac, Maryland; Sister Patricia Chappell, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur and moderator of the leadership team for her order’s U.S. East-West Province who is the former president of the National Black Sisters’ Conference and the former executive director of Pax Christi USA; and Shannen Dee Williams, an associate professor of history at the University of Dayton who specializes in women’s, religious, and Black freedom movement history and who is the author of “Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle.”

About 200 people attended the discussion in person at the university’s Dahlgren Chapel of the Sacred Heart, and more than 2,000 signed up to follow the livestreamed event via various social media platforms.

Sister Thea died in 1990 from bone cancer at the age of 52 and her cause for canonization was overwhelmingly supported by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops when it was opened in 2018. In 1989, she became the first black female to address a meeting of all the bishops of the United States.

Confined to a wheelchair and suffering greatly, Sister Thea urged the bishops to evangelize the African-American community and to welcome African-American participation in the Catholic Church.

Cardinal Gregory likened Sister Thea’s talk to the bishops to famous addresses given by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., President John F. Kennedy and others.

“There are great speeches – great moments – where people have lifted the spirits of the community and the nation,” the cardinal said. “We have to hold up examples like she is for the younger generation.” He said that viewing the speech is a requirement of archdiocesan seminarians who must watch it in groups “so they can hear it together and see one another’s expression.”

In that address to the bishops, Sister Thea called herself “a pilgrim on the journey looking for home,” and she urged the bishops to “please help me to get home.”

“What does it mean to be Black and Catholic? It means that I come to my Church fully functioning,” she told the bishops. “I bring myself; my Black self, all that I am, all that I have, all that I hope to become. I bring my whole history, my traditions, my experience, my culture, my African-American song and dance and gesture and movement and teaching and preaching and healing and responsibility – as gifts to the Church.”

Akalegbere praised Sister Thea because “she mirrors who I aspire to be. I studied her, used her as a guide and prayed for her intercession.”

 “Sister Thea gave me both hope and visibility, especially at a time when I felt invisible as a female, Black, Catholic and an immigrant – all the things that I am,” Akalegbere said. “I found solace in knowing she evolved into who she was.”

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 Thea died in 1990, and her sainthood cause was opened in 2018. She was praised at a Georgetown University discussion of her life and legacy as someone who “told the true truth and she called us to tell the true truth.” (CNS photo/Michael Hoyt, Catholic Standard)

Sister Thea was born Bertha Bowman in Mississippi in 1937. Her father Theon was a doctor and her mother Mary Esther was a teacher. Her grandfather was a freed slave. Even though they were Methodists, Thea’s parents allowed her to convert to the Catholic faith when she was just nine years old. When she was 15, she entered the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, becoming the first and only African-American member of her order.

When she took her vows as a woman religious, she changed her name to Mary Thea Bowman, and pursued studies at The Catholic University of America, where she earned a master’s degree and a doctorate degree in English. After completing her studies, Sister Thea served as a high school teacher and then college professor.

Williams said Sister Thea and other African-American women who broke racial barriers to enter religious life are “forgotten freedom fighters. They were pioneers who desegregated their orders and the schools, the hospitals, the parishes and other places where they ministered.”

“They broke barriers that we cannot even begin to imagine,” Williams said. “Sister Thea was not just a champion of racial justice, she also stood against sexism and all forms of discrimination.”

After more than 15 years as an educator, Sister Thea joined the Diocese of Jackson, Mississippi, serving as a consultant for intercultural awareness. It was during this time that she began her evangelization work, traveling the United States to urge priests, bishops and her fellow Catholics to accept her and other African Americans as “fully Black and fully Catholic.”

In 1984, Sister Thea’s mother and father died and she herself was diagnosed with cancer. Despite her constant pain, she traveled throughout the country preaching the Gospel.

“I know that suffering gives us new perspectives and helps us clarify our real value. I know that suffering has helped me to clarify my relationships,” Sister Thea said of her cancer diagnosis. “Perhaps suffering stops us in our tracks and forces us to confront what is real within ourselves and in our environment.”

Williams said, “We all have the obligation to courageously fight as she did. We cannot forget her suffering. She would tell us to be extremely courageous – not to be fearful. Even in her suffering she still fought.”

Offering reflections and reminiscences about Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman at a May 3 discussion about the late nun’s life and legacy are (above, from left) Sister Patricia Chappell, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur and former president of the National Black Sisters’ Conference and the former executive director of Pax Christi USA, and Shannen Dee Williams, an associate professor of history and the author of “Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle”; and (below) Ogechi Akalegbere, the Christian service coordinator at Connelly School of the Holy Child in Potomac, Maryland, and Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory. (Georgetown University photo/Rafael Suane)

In addition to her evangelization work, Sister Thea helped found the National Black Sisters’ Conference to provide support for African-American women in religious life.

Sister Patricia Chappell said it was through the National Black Sisters’ Conference that she came to know Sister Thea. She said that to continue the work of the late sister, “we have to change the paradigm. The paradigm has to shift and change, and we must change our behaviors and attitudes and look at our policies and procedures.”

Those “policies and procedures,” Sister Chappell said, “keep discrimination alive.”

“Systemic racism has been embedded in every single one of our social systems, including the Catholic Church. It is the boot on the neck of the marginalized and oppressed Black and Brown communities,” she said. “We have to form transformational values that need to be the core of our structures and institutions.”

Sister Thea also helped produce in 1987 “Lead Me, Guide Me: The African American Catholic Hymnal,” the first such hymnal for African-American Catholics.

“This woman can help us understand what happened and what needs to happen,” Carr said. “She spent her too-short life teaching, preaching, evangelizing, singing and challenging us to hunger and thirst for justice.”

Sister Thea died on March 30, 1990 in Mississippi. As she was dying, she said that all she wanted written on her tombstone were the words, “She tried.” She explained that “I want people to remember that I tried to love the Lord and that I tried to love them.”

“Sister Thea told the true truth and she called us to tell the true truth,” Williams said. “In this time of political and moral crises, I truly believe Sister Thea would call on us to tell the true truth.”

Akalegbere said how Sister Thea lived her faith is what drew others to join her efforts to fight racism and to work for justice.

“There is definitely a draw when someone loves God and lives their faith deeply. You can put faith into action and you can do that in a diverse way that leads to equity and justice,” she said.