Bertha Elizabeth Bowman was born in Yazoo City, Mississippi on December 29, 1937-- the only child of middle-aged parents. At an early age, Thea was exposed to her African-American history, stories, songs, prayers, customs and traditions. Her community instructed her, “If you get, give—if you learn, teach.”
At the age of fifteen she told her parents and friends she wanted to join the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration and moved to the unfamiliar town of La Crosse, where she would be the only African-American member of her religious community. Bertha Elizabeth became “Sister Mary Thea.”
She became a teacher, eventually earning her doctorate, and becoming a college professor of English and linguistics.
For Thea, the late 1960s was a time of spiritual and cultural awakening. The liturgical renewal of the Second Vatican Council encouraged her to rediscover her African-American religious heritage and spirituality.
She became a highly acclaimed evangelizer, teacher, writer, and singer sharing the joy of the Gospel and African-American spirituality.
In 1978 Sister Thea accepted an appointment to direct the Office of Intercultural Affairs for the Diocese of Jackson, Mississippi. She was a founding faculty member of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans.
In 1984, Sister Thea faced devastating challenges: both her parents died, and she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She vowed to “live until I die” and continued her rigorous schedule of speaking engagements.
Despite losing her hair to chemotherapy treatments, Sister Thea arrived in a wheelchair, in traditional African garb, to give an inspirational address to the annual meeting of U.S. Bishops in 1989.
When asked about the inevitable, Sister Thea responded: “Tell them what Sojourner Truth said about her eventual death, ‘I’m not going to die. I’m going home like a shooting star.’”
Sister Thea died on March 30, 1990 at the age of 52 years.She is buried beside her parents in Memphis, Tennessee. Inscribed on her tombstone are these simple words: “She tried.”
Her legacy is vast and strong: across the United States there are schools, an education foundation, housing units, a health clinic, books, a stage play, statues, and stained glass windows created in Sister Thea’s honor.
She dedicated her life to spreading the joy of the Gospel and promoting cultural awareness and racial reconciliation around the world.
At their Fall 2018 Assembly in Baltimore, MD, the U.S Bishops voted unanimously on the cause for sainthood of Sister Thea Bowman, F.S.P.A. Funds are currently being raised to help in the Cause for Canonization, or sainthood, for Thea.