Servant of God Thea Bowman is having a moment, and let’s be real here: it’s one that is long overdue.
In fact, we can say that many of our Black American Catholics are having a moment. It was just a few years ago that names like hers and Julia Greeley; Pierre Toussant; Mother Mary Lange, OSP; Augustus Tolton; Mother Henriette DeLille, SSF; Bishop Harold Perry, SVD; Fr Josh Johnson, and Cardinal Wilton Gregory were really only familiar to those “in the know”, but now you can hear their names spoken often during faith formation, in homilies, and in our homes.
Many of us were introduced to the words of Black Catholic poet Amanda Gorman through her sharing a poem at the inauguration, and I know I got a little warm and fuzzy inside when gymnast Simone Biles shared about how she keeps a rosary in her gym bag and calls on the intercession of St Sebastian.
While it’s true that people of African descent have been Catholic for a long time, why does the revelation that “another” Black American is Catholic strike us as novel? This, I think, is what Sr Thea was trying to show us with her life. She was trying to show us all that there is more to being Catholic than our rite, our parish, our cultural norms, or our music preference.
When I was approached by Ave Maria Press to edit “We Are Beloved”, bringing Sr Thea’s words to a greater audience through their 30 Days with a Spiritual Teacher series, I jumped at the opportunity. You see, Sr Thea has been part of my life and part of my family since long before I knew who she was. Unbeknownst to me, she was part of my life before I even converted to Catholicism, and I like to think that she and the Blessed Mother were there side-by-side, encouraging me to cross the Tiber.
When I mentioned to my family that I was going to edit a book featuring the writings of a Black nun who served in La Crosse, Wisconsin, my aunt shared that she knew of Sr Thea while she was in college, and that her friend had her as a professor! That small connection of a Black American Catholic nun to my Black American Missionary Baptist aunt helped to make Sr Thea more than just a great teacher to me. It made her part of my family.
We are so fortunate to live in a time when we can not only read Sr Thea’s words but also hear her voice, praising God in word and in song. Head to your favorite music streaming provider and you can hear Sr Thea singing her heart out to our Lord in the “Songs of My People” album she recorded in 1988.
Sr Thea left a mark on us. A mark that reminds us that God loves us for who we are because we are His. She reminds us that we are Catholic not because of what we do, but because of whose blood has purchased our redemption. She encourages us to be the tabernacles that we become through the Eucharist. When we go out into the world we are Christ-bearers and have the opportunity to show the world what it means to be a Christian.
She reminds us that God created us to be different and that those differences should be celebrated, not blended away. She reminds us to look around to see who is missing from the table and to go out and find them and to hear their voices. If we are truly to be the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, we need to make sure that everyone has a place. And if the table is not big enough, we need to find a bigger one.
In a world that likes to point out differences as a way to sow division, Sr Thea encourages us to see our differences as a means of unification.
“We are a pilgrim people traveling together in sorrow and joy toward that land of promise. Where there will be no more sorrow, no more moaning, no more weeping and wailing, no more goodbye, but just hello.”
—Servant of God Thea Bowman, “Almost Home, Living with Suffering & Dying” (2008)
Karianna Frey is an educator, author, speaker, wife, and mother to four, based out of Minnesota. Growing up Baptist, she developed a deep love for the Lord, which grew as she learned more about the sacraments and the Catholic Church. She enjoys sharing how our values help define who we are, the power prayer can have on your life, and how each and every person is created in the image and likeness of God with a specific role in His Church. Connect with her on Instagram at @kariannafrey or by visiting kariannafrey.com.