My former teacher could be a future saint Print
Written by Mary C. Uhler   
Thursday, Nov. 22, 2018 -- 12:00 AM
Servant of God Sr. Thea Bowman, FSPA, as a young Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration. (Photo courtesy FSPA Archives)

It was quite exciting for me to hear that the Catholic bishops of the United States gave their assent to the canonization effort launched for Sr. Thea Bowman, FSPA, during their recent meeting in Baltimore.

This means that my former teacher could eventually be declared a saint! While she was a student at Viterbo College (now University) in La Crosse, Sister Thea taught my sophomore biology class at Aquinas High School during the school year of 1964-1965. She must have been a student teacher or intern, but she taught our class by herself.

First African-American FSPA

I remember her well. She looked much like the picture with this article as a young Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration (FSPA). She was the first African-American member of her order, based in La Crosse. I remember her as a great teacher who was smart, organized, and kind. She even encouraged me when I was reluctant to dissect a frog!

After she graduated from Viterbo in 1965, she was a teacher in Catholic elementary and high schools for 16 years. She earned a Master’s degree  and a doctorate in English from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

Convert to Catholic faith

What brought Sister Thea to the FSPAs? She was born Bertha Bowman in Yazoo City, Miss., in 1937. Her grandfather had been a slave, but her father was a physician and her mother a teacher.

She was raised Methodist but converted to the Catholic faith at age nine with the permission of her parents. This happened through the inspiration of the FSPAs and the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity, who were her teachers and pastors in Canton, Miss.

Her biography says her conversion was rooted in what she witnessed: she was attracted to the Catholic Church by the example of how Catholics loved and cared for one another, most especially the poor and needy. She was impressed by how Catholics put their faith into action.

At the age of 15, she told her parents and friends she wanted to join the FSPAs, and she left the familiar Mississippi terrain to venture to the unfamiliar town of La Crosse, Wis. At her religious profession, she was given the name, “Sister Mary Thea” in honor of the Blessed Mother and her father, Theon. The name Thea literally means “God.”

Shared her culture

Besides teaching, Sister Thea shared her African-American culture and spirituality. She became a highly acclaimed evangelizer, teacher, writer, and singer, sharing the joy of the Gospel and her cultural heritage throughout the nation.

She returned home to Canton to care for her aging parents in 1978. With the permission of her religious community, she accepted an appointment to direct the Office of Intercultural Affairs for the Diocese of Jackson. In this position, Sister Thea assailed racial prejudice and promoted cultural awareness and sensitivity. 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. Sister Thea vowed to “live until I die” and continued her rigorous schedule of speaking engagements.

Spoke to bishops

She spoke to the U.S. bishops at their annual meeting in 1989. She urged the bishops to continue to evangelize the African-American community, to promote inclusivity and full participation of African-Americans within Church leadership, and to understand the necessity and value of Catholic schools in the African-American community.

When she was through, she invited the bishops to move together, cross arms, and sing with her, “We Shall Overcome.” She touched the hearts of bishops as evidenced by their thunderous applause and tears flowing from their eyes. She would have been pleased that the bishops approved a pastoral letter against racism at their meeting this month.

She died on March 30, 1990, and said she wanted engraved on her tombstone, “She tried.” “I want people to remember that I tried to love the Lord and that I tried to love them,” she said.

Sister Thea certainly did more than try. She succeeded in spreading God’s love throughout the United States. For more about her life and cause for canonization, visit or