Unwrapping the history of Sister Thea Bowman, a Black nun who broke barriers for African Americans

Sister Thea Bowman/Photo credit: Catholic University

Sister Thea Bowman was raised as a protestant in Mississippi after her birth in 1937. She was a descendant of enslaved Africans. When she was 12 years old, she told her parents that she wanted to be a catholic. When she was 15, she relocated to La Crosse to attend St. Rose Convert where she studied at what is known today as Viterbo University.

Her switch in faith was through the early teachings of Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration and the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity that taught and groomed her at the Holy Child Jesus Church and School in Canton.

These religious institutions are where the seeds of her faith were sowed and they shaped her future illustrious religious journey, as reported by the Sister Thea Bowman website.

She became the first and only Black member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. Throughout her whole life as a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, she championed the civil rights of the Black community. Sister Thea used her knowledge to empower people of African descent by enlightening them on their history and experience.

She had a philosophy that being Black and catholic meant investing her energy and knowledge to become what she envisioned for herself. By this, she meant sharing her knowledge of her Black history, traditions, culture, African-American song, dance and heritage with the Black community through teaching, preaching and healing.

Sister Thea infused songs of her African-American origin into her Catholic faith. She helped write the first catholic hymnal that included gospel music. Historians say the songs were more than gospel exalting her faith; they had a linkage with the customs and heritage she was exposed to during her formative years.

The religious sister, teacher, and musician documented how her community coped with racial inequality and injustice as well as how they prevailed against those ills. She was one of the first African-American women to teach at the Catholic elementary school in La Crosse. She one time chaired the English Department at Viterbo after taking her advocacy to other parts of the world and returning to La Crosse.

One of her former students, Dr. Deborah Pembleton, recalled her time with Sister Thea in the late sixties. She said she and her friends were highly motivated to migrate from their community after their encounter with Sister Thea.

She said anytime Sister Thea visited her school, they were empowered by the knowledge she shared with them. “We were given strict instructions by the sisters, of course, to be on our best behavior when she came. When she came, I wouldn’t necessarily say she was on her best behavior,” Pembleton was quoted by Wisconsin Life. “She would be rollicking with laughter. Her whole body would embrace the music. Her whole body would embrace education and learning and she would just be this glowing light for us.”

Sister Thea died of cancer in 1990 at age 52. Her messages continue to break barriers in the Catholic Church. Before her death, she helped found the National Black Sisters’ Conference to support African-American women in Catholic religious life.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: January 3, 2023


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