A Saint in Memphis?
Bertha Bowman was born on Dec 29 1937 in Canton, MS the daughter of a teacher, her mother, and a physician, her father. Her grandfather was a slave. Raised Methodist she went on a spiritual quest at the age of 9 attending churches of various denominations in her tiny Bible belt town. At the Catholic church , where she was relegated at that time to the back pews along with few other
blacks, she experienced the witness of the love and service of the nuns there, especially the nuns of the Franciscan Order of Perpetual Adoration. “Once I became a catholic my wanderings ceased. I knew I had found that for which I had been seeking. “Momma always says God takes care of babies and fools” she wrote in her 1958 autobiography. Her parents at first taken by surprise became supportive of her conversion and were an inspiration to her spiritual journey. Her heart for God manifested during this journey in many ways, such as giving her lunch away to children who had little or nothing to eat. Even at a young age she had a desire to help the marginalized. Her mother realizing she was coming home hungry everyday helped her make extra PB&J sandwiches to give
out at lunch time.
This strong sense of wanting to serve others led her to join the convent, at the early of age of 15, of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in La Crosse, WI . Despite her parents pleading to wait and reconsider until she was older, she staged a hunger strike until they relented. They accompanied her on the long train ride from Canton to La Crosse. The family was allowed to sit in the white only section because a white nun was with them.
Upon completion of her novitiate, she took the name Thea. Two years into her formation she was stricken with TB and spent a year in a sanatorium. Several sisters visiting her would remark on her constant state of cheerfulness in spite of the illness. Upon recovery she completed her novitiate and received her BA in English from Viterbo University in La Crosse where she later taught. She went on to receive an MA in 1969 and PhD in 1972 in English language, literature and linguistics from Catholic University in DC. She taught there for some time then taught school at Blessed Sacrament in La Crosse.
Sister Thea later moved back to Canton to be closer to her aging parents. She taught at Holy Child Jesus school in Canton and held the position of consultant for Intercultural Awareness for the Diocese of Jackson. She worked mostly with children helping to grow in awareness of their gifts and their heritage. Through songs, dance and poetry, drama and storytelling, Sister Thea spread the message that people of all colors are gifted and to find and use their joy and pride and freedom of expression and to share their gifts every day to others.
She averaged 100 public appearances a year giving lectures, workshops, conferences spreading her message of joy, hope and pride. Her ministry was a ministry of joy. She was even interviewed on 60 minutes. In 1989 Boston University awarded her a PHD in religion and named the The Bowman Ahana Intercultural Center in her honor. She was considered an expert in language and literature of the Renaissance and on the works of William Faulkner.
She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1984 and while battling her disease she continued to travel and lecture with passion and vitality. The cancer spread to her bones and she died on March 30, 1990 at the age of 53. She is buried alongside her beloved parents in Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis. She is often called Mother Teresa with “soul”. If Sister Thea had taken the Spiritual type test she would have been considered a prophet.
She was nominated and accepted for consideration to sainthood by the Catholic Church in 2017.
Memphis may soon be home to a Saint!