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'A historic day': Sr Thea Bowman Catholic Student Center dedicated for Howard University

The historic HBCU will have a physical Catholic ministry hub for the first time in decades, following the return of priest-led ministry in 2020.

Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington prays during the dedication of the Sr Thea Bowman Catholic Student Center in Washington, D.C. (Nate Tinner-Williams)

WASHINGTON — Catholic campus ministry in the nation’s capital entered a new era on Monday, with the dedication of the Sr. Thea Bowman Catholic Student Center by Cardinal Wilton Gregory before a crowd of dozens of Howard University students, alumni, ministers, and supporters.

The edifice, located roughly half a mile south of the school’s main campus, was purchased last year and has been in use since the spring semester, when initial renovations were completed.

“This has been several decades in the making,” said Fr Robert Boxie III during his remarks at the ceremony this week. He has served as Howard’s Catholic chaplain since 2020—the first priest to fill the role in roughly half a century.

“As we come to the 76th year of ministry [with] a Catholic presence at Howard University, the center will allow us to have 75 years and beyond.”

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The dedication coincided with a number of anniversaries important to the District of Columbia and the Catholic Church, including the feast of St. Augustine of Hippo, an African Doctor of the Church whose name will adorn the center’s new student library.

The day was also the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a moment of remembrance for the cause of justice in the African-American community. The dedication itself reflected a similar focus, with the student and clergy speakers emphasizing the importance of inculturated Black Catholic ministry on Howard’s historic HBCU campus.

Representing that ethos was Servant of God Thea Bowman, the pioneering Black nun whose name now adorns spaces across D.C., including at Howard, the Catholic University of America, and Georgetown University. One of the newest icons depicting her, “Gladiolus in the Valley” by Dallas-based artist Vernon Adams, was on display at Monday’s dedication and will be housed in the new student center alongside several other Black Catholic art pieces.

“We chose Sister Thea Bowman as our namesake for a million different reasons. [She] embodied what it means to be Black and Catholic,” said Ali Mumbach, a graduate student at Howard who serves there as the assistant Catholic campus minister.

“She advocated for Black Catholics and dedicated so much of her life to showing the Catholic Church that we are a part of this Church and we belong. We as Black people have gifts to share with the Church. This is a part of our ministry at Howard.”

Icons of St. Martin de Porres and St. Charles Lwanga by Tianna Williams at the Sr Thea Bowman Catholic Student Center in Washington, D.C. (Regina Banks)

Referencing the March on Washington anniversary, Mumbach also noted that Bowman—who for years studied and taught in D.C.—visited Howard to speak to the community in 1968, immediately following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Cardinal Gregory, a personal friend of Bowman’s, was joined at the dedication by two of his fellow prelates in the Archdiocese of Washington, including Auxiliary Bishop Roy E. Campbell Jr. and the retired Cardinal Donald Wuerl—who was making a rare public appearance.

Campbell himself is a Howard alum, having graduated in 1969, and Wuerl was instrumental in securing the funds for the new Catholic student center. The campus ministry, known as HU Bison Catholic, had previously held its gatherings in reserved spaces on Howard’s main campus.

“It was through [Cardinal Wuerl’s] generosity and persistence that we were able to find the funds to purchase the house,” said Gregory.

In the immediate future, the Sr Thea House will serve as a hub for Howard’s Catholic students and their ministry, including service events, fellowship gatherings, and devotional groups. The house will also be open to students throughout the week and contains offices for Boxie and Mumbach.

Boxie says the planned renovation of the house’s garage into a Catholic chapel is in its early stages, with a building permit expected “in the next several weeks.” He also expressed hope that its patron will soon be raised to the altars.

“I'm looking forward to the day when we can change the name of the center,” he said.

“The day where we change this place from ‘Sister Thea Bowman’ to ‘Saint Thea Bowman Catholic Student Center’ at Howard University.”

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.

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