The road to sainthood: Sister Thea Bowman broke down racial barriers

Image courtesy of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration
Image courtesy of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration
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By John Charles McAllister-Ashley, Program Coordinator, Institute Office of Anti-Racism & Racial Equity 

A remarkable African American Catholic nun, singer and advocate for racial inclusion, Sister Thea Bowman, FSPA, gained recognition for her profound impact on the church and society during her lifetime. Her tireless work in promoting love, acceptance and unity, along with her commitment to breaking down racial and cultural barriers, left an indelible legacy that served as an example to those who followed her.  

She is now on the road to sainthood, an inspirational and significant journey within the Catholic Church. 

The process of canonization is a complex and lengthy one. It generally involves several stages, where a candidate is declared a “Servant of God,” followed by “Venerable,” then “Blessed,” and finally “Saint.” Each stage requires the documentation and verification of miracles attributed to the candidate’s intercession, along with a rigorous examination of their life, writings, and virtues. 

In 2018, Sister Thea’s cause for canonization was initiated by the Diocese of Jackson, Mississippi, and she reached achieved the first step when she was officially designated a “Servant of God.” It was a testament to her exceptional contributions to the church and her ongoing influence in promoting unity and inclusivity. 

Sister Thea was a joyful person who loved to sing. This 1987 interview includes vignettes of her preaching and singing. Song has always served to inspire hope and bring people of different beliefs, cultures and origins together.  

She was unafraid to speak truth to power. In 1989, a year before she died of breast cancer, she spoke to US bishops about what it means to be Black and Catholic. 

One wonders what she would say about her community today? That is unknowable, but she has set an example for us to follow. 

Continued advocacy for inclusion: Sister Thea was a passionate advocate for racial and cultural inclusion within the Catholic Church. While there have been strides towards greater diversity and acceptance, there are still challenges and inequities. Her work shows the importance of continuing to foster an inclusive environment in the church, ensuring that people from all backgrounds feel welcome and valued. 

Championing dialogue and understanding: She was known for her ability to foster dialogue and understanding among different communities. She would encourage open conversations about race, cultural diversity, and social justice issues. Her belief in the power of dialogue to bridge divides would be a balm in today’s world where such conversations are more critical than ever. 

Helping marginalized communities: Her focus on social justice and strong commitment to helping those in need shows us the path to address challenges faced by marginalized communities, including systemic racism, economic disparities and access to education and healthcare. 

Inspiring hope and unity: Her enduring message of hope, love and unity serves as a source of inspiration for her Catholic community. She encouraged people to come together, regardless of their backgrounds, and work towards a more compassionate and understanding world. Her legacy would serve as a reminder that change is possible when driven by love and a deep sense of justice. 

To read more about her life click here or to learn more about the cause for canonization