Sister Thea Bowman, a star in the constellation that is the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in La Crosse, is expected to get a boost from U.S. bishops onto the road to sainthood in November.
U.S. bishops are expected to approve the sainthood cause for the FSPA order’s first black member, who died March 30, 1990, during their biannual meeting, according to an announcement Tuesday from four major black clergy and religious groups — the National Black Sisters Conference, the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, the National Association of Black Catholic Deacons and Spouses, and the National Black Catholic Seminarians Association.
The National Catholic Reporter’s Global Sisters Project reported the development.
Sister Karen Lueck, president of the La Crosse-based FSPA order, welcomed the news, saying in a statement Thursday, “We look forward to supporting the work of the Diocese of Jackson (Miss.) as they pursue Sister Thea’s cause for sainthood.”
Jackson is Bowman’s home diocese, and the U.S. bishops’ approval would allow the Vatican to begin the sainthood process, which would include the Jackson Diocese’s appointment of a tribunal to investigate whether her life exemplified “heroic virtue.”
“We often refer to Sister Thea Bowman as the ‘springtime in everyone’s life,’” Lueck said. “Her gifts as poet, preacher, master teacher and vocalist blessed our congregation.
“But it was Sister Thea’s work as an African-American catalyst that had — and continues to have — a profound effect on the world. Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr., she always encouraged people to stand up for their rights, she made significant strides in racial equality in the Catholic Church,” Lueck said.
Bowman taught fifth and sixth grades at Blessed Sacrament School in La Crosse before going to Washington, D.C., to earn a doctorate at The Catholic University of America.
In 1972, she came back to La Crosse to teach English and music at Viterbo University, where she also headed the English department and formed the Hallelujah Singers, a black student chorale, until she returned to Mississippi in 1978.
“Sister Thea’s headstone displays a simple phrase: ‘She tried’,” Lueck said. “Sister Thea, we’re trying, too. Today as Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, we continue to build bridges of relationships and have committed to celebrate authentically unity in diversity by challenging ourselves to unveil our white privilege.”
Sister Charlene Smith, a retired FSPA member who became a friend of Bowman’s when they were in the novitiate together in La Crosse in the 1950s, co-authored the award-winning book “Thea’s Song: The Life of Thea Bowman” in 2009.
“In La Crosse, she was a very rare person. In the 1950s, there were probably only two or three blacks,” Smith recalled in a 2015 interview in connection with the FSPA’s celebration of the 25th anniversary of Bowman’s death.
“I always say I’m a very fortunate person, living for 35 years in an orbit around the star,” Smith said. “She was a star, a thoroughbred, a life force.”
Members of the black community haven’t waited for the Vatican to elevate Bowman, whom they already consider a saint by acclamation. But the National Black Sisters Conference, the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, the National Association of Black Catholic Deacons and Spouses and the National Black Catholic Seminarians Association are seeking to gain formal recognition for her through traditional channels of the Catholic Church.
Bowman received Viterbo’s Pope John XXIII Award in 1985.
Other evidence of Bowman’s influence in U.S. Catholicism is the fact that six schools across the nation, a center for women and a foundation bear her name.