For a number of years, Sr. Thea Bowman, FSPA, has captured my attention and imagination. When I think of Sr. Thea, I think of her joyful spirit, her boldness and courage, the radiant love that seems to permeate every quote I read or video clip I watch.
Here at Saint Meinrad in the 2nd Anselm hallway, there is a portrait of Sr. Thea, wearing vibrant African clothing, seemingly in mid-sentence or mid-song, or perhaps both, since song and proclamation were intertwined for her. When I pass that portrait, I find myself catching my breath, slowing my steps, and gazing at the picture. I see beauty; I see strength, I see joy. I try to breathe in something of her spirit and find myself renewed as I continue down the hallway.
In November, I read Thea Bowman: Faithful and Free by Fr. Maurice J. Nutt to mark Black Catholic History Month, in the spirit of what I call the Cyprian Davis pledge. While I certainly found a story of the beauty, strength, and joy that I associate with Sr. Thea, a brief comment near the end of the book caught me by surprise.
There, Fr. Nutt speaks of her loneliness and some unpleasant memories from her childhood (page 115). She was an only child, a child much loved and longed awaited by her parents, Mary Esther and Theon. She hated her given name, Bertha. (Thea was her religious name.) Because she was tall, other children taunted her.
When I read of these experiences of loneliness, I found myself sitting very still and aching inside on Thea’s behalf and feeling some of the sting of some of my own childhood sadness. I always admire her strength and courage in carving her path, following her vocation, claiming an integrated identity as a Black Catholic woman….and all of this as one raised in a deeply segregated Mississippi, the only African-American Sister in her religious community, the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration (FSPA). Somehow, though, I would never have thought of her being lonely as a child. There is something very personal and intimate in that realization, in that vulnerability.
I suspect that had I met Sr. Thea during her life, I may have been shy and intimidated around someone so confident and free. I would have wanted to admire her from a distance, hesitant to draw too close. That one paragraph, though, shifted my perspective, Sr. Thea suddenly felt very human and close to me, like a friend I have never met but with whom I could share the secret fears and longings of my heart.
One of my favorite photos of Sr. Thea is one of her standing before a children’s choir from the Holy Child Jesus Mission School in Canton, Mississippi, where she had been a student and then later returned as a teacher. She used music as a way to help build children’s confidence, insisting they could sing, they could read, they could excel….and then she loved and cared for them in such a way that they discovered that indeed they could (page 47). Perhaps her commitment to and compassion for her students flowed from her own memory of the vulnerability and possibilities of childhood. Her parents, extended family, and her Franciscan teachers had believed in her and nurtured her gifts and capacity. And she did that for her own students, of all ages.
As I sat quietly pondering the thought that this bold, dynamic woman had had moments of childhood loneliness and sadness, I felt a deeper solidarity with her. In fact, I felt that she was now teaching me. I felt her nurturing my gifts and sense of self. I could hear her calling me in my own vulnerability to radiate beauty, strength, and joy. I heard her calling me to be faithful even in the midst of loneliness. I heard her calling me to have the courage to be free.