Franciscan Spirit Blog

Sister Thea Bowman: A Mighty Light

Sister Thea Bowman was a source of light in an often dark world.

“I want to live till I die!”

And that is exactly what my friend, Sister Thea Bowman, did throughout her life. Neither TB nor cancer deterred her from doing all she could to let her little light shine. Everywhere she went and everyone she met was a special experience for her. She connected with people by words, by song, and by looks. While a diagnosis of cancer often slows down some people, for Sister Thea, it seemed to be an impetus to fill every moment as full as she could. She continued to touch the hearts of everyone she encountered.

Here are some of my fondest memories of Sister Thea….

Washington, DC

Our 24-year friendship began in the summer of 1966 when we were asked to start a Master’s program in English at Catholic University. We got acquainted on the train ride to DC since we had not connected much before that. In our first summer at CUA, we lived in a house of studies several blocks from campus. Sister Thea and I shared a room so we got to know each other even more. Finally, one of us would say, “Whoever talks next has to clean the room!” Then we went to sleep.

Our group of five received many stares on campus. All other African American sisters were in African American communities. I remember well how Thea came into her own as an African American woman on campus. She was able to mix and mingle with other African Americans more than she ever could in Wisconsin. And she could sing her heart out on campus. Her voice was legendary.

One diversion I got to enjoy each summer because of Sister Thea was going to a wealthy lady’s lavish apartment in the city for supper. The elderly lady, who employed a maid, had been a long-time donor to Holy Child Jesus School. I was always uncomfortable having a maid wait on us throughout our visit. When I first said that to Sister Thea, she told me to be glad the lady had a good job, a good boss, and made a good salary. So I was happy for her.

Source: NewGroup Media

La Crosse, Wisconsin

When we both taught at Viterbo University in the 1970s, Sister Thea was a gift to each student as well as to the faculty and staff. She made every class meaningful and instilled in each student a desire to meet her expectations. Sister Thea often sang in her classes, which was rather unique. She also started a singing group that performed on and off campus. And she took students on trips to Mississippi to visit William Faulkner’s home and to Stratford-on-Avon in Ontario, Canada, for Shakespeare plays. Nothing was too much for her students. Sister Thea was greatly respected and appreciated by everyone there.

Canton, Mississippi

When Sister Thea was in Canton caring for her parents and working for the Jackson Diocese, my mother and I visited the Bowmans. Not used to segregation, we had quite the experience seeing that in action, especially downtown and in schools. As we said our goodbyes before returning to La Crosse, I will never forget seeing my mother kiss Dr. Bowman on his cheek. I thought Sister Thea would pass out from shock! She told us later that she didn’t think a White woman had ever touched her dad, let alone kissed him.  

Jackson, Mississippi

When Sister Thea’s health diminished, I visited her at the hospital in Jackson. I remember asking if there was anything she wanted. She said she would love to have a chocolate milkshake. Then added, “But don’t tell Dort [caregiver] because I am not supposed to have them.” The next day, she relished every sip of the shake. It was a joy for me to see her thoroughly enjoy that simple treat. It was also another example of wanting to “live till I die.” My final memory is a large Jackson church full of friends celebrating her “going home like a shooting star.”

My friend, Sister Thea, pray for us!

Learn about Sister Thea Bowman!


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