Sister Thea Bowman

Sister Thea Bowman transcended racism to leave a lasting mark on US Catholic life in the late 20th century.

Born on 29 December 1937 in Yazoo City, Mississippi, Thea was raised a Protestant until the age of nine when she asked her parents if she could become a Catholic. She enrolled in a Catholic School, which deepened her appreciation for the Catholic faith.

When she was fifteen, she overcame her parents’ objections to travel north to Wisconsin to join the Order of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in La Crosse. The granddaughter of slaves, she was the only African American member of the religious community, and she transcended racism to leave a lasting mark on US Catholic life in the late 20th century.

Sister Thea was a bridge builder who upheld civil rights and worked diligently to heal a people wounded by segregation and slavery. The social structures prevented the marginalised black population from feeling welcome in a Church that they saw as a Church of white people. Through teaching and sharing the message of God’s love, Sister Thea played a crucial role in bridging the ethnic gap within the Church in Mississippi.

After 16 years of teaching, the Bishop of Jackson invited Sister Thea to become the consultant for intercultural awareness, where she would create programs directed to break down racial and cultural barriers. Sister Thea encouraged people to communicate with one another to understand other cultures and races, which was no small task at the given time.

In 1984, Sister Thea was diagnosed with breast cancer. She prayed “to live until I die.” Her prayer was answered, and Thea continued her gatherings seated in a wheelchair.

In 1989, the U.S. bishops invited her to be a key speaker at their conference on Black Catholics. At the end of the meeting, at Thea’s invitation, the bishops stood and sang “We Shall Overcome” with gusto.

Thea lived a full life and fought evil, prejudice, suspicion, hatred and the things that drive people apart. She fought for God and God’s people until her death in 1990.

Sister Thea’s cause for canonisation was opened and supported by the US bishops in 2018.

Photo credit: Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration


By Father Mark E. Odion MSP, Policy and Research Analyst at the Bishops’ Conference.

“Sister Thea Bowman stood as a champion of faith uniting the wounded black Americans with the Catholic Church. She is the bridge of unity and peace in the divided church, and the face of welcome to the black community in her society.

“Sister Thea Bowman inspires me to always work towards breaking down racial and cultural barriers in our society, to always be welcoming to all people. She has taught me to stand for unity in the practice of faith with others and to see Christ in everybody. We can learn from her that there is strength and joy in unity and peace.”