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10 years later, Thea Bowman still inspires

NCR Staff

When Sr. Thea Bowman went home to Jesus like “a shooting star” in 1990, worshipers at her funeral Mass said her legacy would be proclaimed for many years to come.

Ten years later, black Catholic leaders say they live in Bowman’s reflected light. Her energy and accomplishments continue to bear fruit among black Catholics in the United States, friends and acquaintances said.

The granddaughter of a slave who became a Franciscan nun, Bowman is remembered as teacher, evangelist, catechist and, especially, as inspirer and pioneer. She was a leader in the movement encouraging black Catholics to express their cultural roots inside the Catholic church. She earned a doctorate in English literature at The Catholic University in Washington and went on to found the Institute of Black Studies at Xavier University, New Orleans, where she helped men and women, black and white, understand what it means to be a black Catholic.

“I feel the world is different because of the work she was doing, and also because of some who worked with her,” said Franciscan Fr. Jim Goode, president of the National Black Clergy Caucus. Goode operates Solid Ground in New York, an outreach ministry to African-American families. “They brought our people into the church and made them understand they were welcome,” he said. “That is what they were preaching -- that we can share the gifts of our blackness, the gifts of our spirituality, the gifts of soul. It is what I am preaching today.”

Both Goode and Bowman were honored by the Chicago archdiocese for their evangelization efforts among black Catholics.

In Bowman’s most public act before she died of bone cancer at age 52, she made a powerful plea before the U.S. bishops at their summer meeting for renewed black Catholic evangelization efforts. At her bidding following her talk, the bishops crossed arms, linked hands and joined her in song. Some swayed. Others wept.

Notre Dame de Namur Sr. Patricia Chappell, president of the National Black Sisters Conference, said Bowman challenged the bishops to hire diocesan personnel “who truly reflect the universal church, including people of color.

She insisted, said Chappel, that bishops “not only look out for ways to meet the needs of black Catholics but also to put black Catholics into positions of decision making in the church.”

Bowman diedon March 30, nine months after preaching to the bishops. At her funeral Mass, Trinity Mission Fr. John Ford delivered the homily, using words that Bowman had given him to say. “Just say what Sojourner Truth said about her own eventual dying,” Bowman had told him. “I’m not going to die. I’m going home like a shooting star.”

Bowman “had a quiet grace. We would call it heroic,” said Dominican Sr. Jamie T. Phelps, visiting professor of theology at Loyola University, Chicago, and associate director of the Institute of Black Catholic Studies. “She was determined that, because she was called by God, she would do whatever it took to be responsive, whatever the personal cost.”

Bowman, Phelps said, “is representative of the black Catholic community at its best. She embodies the black Catholic religious tradition on one hand, and on the other she embodies the virtues that black women develop in situations of systemic oppression.”

“She was my preaching teacher,” said Fr. Michael Jacques, a Caucasian priest who oversees St. Peter Claver Parish in New Orleans. St. Peter Claver, with 2,400 families, is the largest black parish in Louisiana, Jacques said. “Thea taught me to preach -- to preach not just from my own knowledge, but from the life experience story of the people I minister to,” he said.

Shawn Copeland, theology professor at Marquette University, said Bowman is one of a group of people, lay and religious, priests and bishops “who have had a great impact on the black Catholic movement. There are many people who, in a sense, are the seed of our church,” she said.

Some of the other most visible black Catholic leaders of the 1970s and ’80s, like Bowman, have died and others have left the church’s ministry. Those who have died include James Lyke, who died of cancer in 1992, a year after he was named archbishop of Atlanta; Nathan Jones, a lay educator, who taught at Loyola Marymount and at the Institute of Black Studies; and Notre Dame de Namur Sr. Dolores Harrell, an educational leader in Boston. Those who left the ministry include former Archbishop Eugene Marino, Lyke’s predecessor in Atlanta, who resigned amid reports of his affair with a woman, and Fr. George Stallings, who took his black Catholic congregation out of the Catholic church.

Despite the losses, today’s leaders remain optimistic about the future of the black Catholic community.

“I’ve watched changes and growth over 40 years, and I’m realistic,” Phelps said. “We do not have a perfect church, nor a perfect society. But I have lived long enough that I believe, in God’s own time, we are moving forward, not backward.

Bowman’s spirit, Phelps said, “is not simply a gift for the black community, one that allows us to persevere at a time when nobody is interested in us. What Thea began to embody near the end of her life was her dedication to the church as a universal sacrament of salvation, one that reaches across all diversity. Hers is a gift needed by the whole church.”

National Catholic Reporter, March 24, 2000