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Renewing Thea’s efforts

NCR Staff

A decade ago, on April 3, 1990, when Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration Thea Bowman was “sent home to Jesus,” Bishop William Houck of Jackson, Miss., remarked, “I kind of feel our diocese embraces the whole country tonight.”

Bowman was 52. Singer, evangelist, teacher and exemplar of where African-American Catholics should be headed, into an all-embracing church, Bowman’s mourners and admirers had come from East Coast, West Coast, North and South to pack St. Mary’s Church in Jackson, Miss. Nine of those present were bishops.

The previous year, suffering from bone cancer and using a wheelchair, Bowman had astounded U.S. bishops at their national meeting, wooed and won them over to a new emphasis of outreach to minorities, had them crossing arms, joining hands and singing “We Shall Overcome.”

Shortly before her death, she’d dictated an article for the diocesan paper, Mississippi Today. “Let us stretch ourselves, going beyond our comfort zones to unite ourselves with Christ’s redemptive work,” she wrote. She knew whereof she wrote, for she’d grown up in a society where there were churches for blacks and churches for whites. She wanted better, and more, than that. And in her native Mississippi, in her last few years, she had worked to give momentum to a cause.

Nationally and regionally, the momentum she built up for black Catholics has not been sustained. But it has been remembered. In Mississippi, black Catholics are renewing their efforts, not so much in Bowman’s memory as in her spirit.

It will take both white and black Catholics going beyond their comfort zones to ensure any meaningful progress within the institution.

National Catholic Reporter, January 19, 2001