It was a solemn, yet hopeful evening on Tuesday, March 31, as Dr. Deborah Pembleton, professor at St. Benedict/St John’s University, honored the life and legacy of Sister Thea Bowman, a prominent figure in the African American Catholic community and a powerful advocate for intercultural awareness in the United States.
The presentation, hosted by BC’s Thea Bowman AHANA and Intercultural Center, was both educational and personal, as Dr. Pembleton, student and family friend of Sr. Thea, shared her own personal experiences growing up with Sr. Thea, as well as Sr. Thea’s history.
Born to a Methodist family in Yazoo City, Miss. in 1937, Sr. Thea Bowman quickly converted to Catholicism at the age of nine, later joining the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in La Crosse, Wis., where she attended Viterbo University. After receiving her Ph.D for her doctoral thesis on William Faulkner from the Catholic University of America, Sr. Thea first taught at an elementary school in La Crosse, Wis., before teaching high school at the Holy Child Jesus School in Canton, Miss., where she became friends with Dr. Pembleton’s family.
Later teaching at numerous universities, including her alma maters, Sr. Thea became an inspiration to the black Catholic community, delivering stirring speeches to black congregations and providing a foundation for the development and legitimization of a distinct form of worship for black Catholics. She even appeared on 60 Minutes, where she influenced host Mike Wallace to admit that “black is beautiful.”
“When Sr. Thea cajoled Mike Wallace into saying ‘black is beautiful,’ it was an empowering experience for the entire black population,” Dr. Pembleton said. “Here was this black woman from a small town telling a white man to say ‘black is beautiful.’”
Sr. Thea’s influence over the nation was due in part to her warmheartedness, as Dr. Pembleton noted Sr. Thea laughed with her whole body.
“She was born at the right time in history and with the right talents,” Dr. Pembleton said, “to open the minds, hearts and perspectives of individuals and organizations that had been resistant to change because of fear of the unknown, fear of difference and fear of change.”
Ending with her own personal experience with Sr. Thea’s influence and legacy, Dr. Pembleton expressed that drawing on Sr. Thea’s examples of cultural versatility in pre-Civil Rights America and messages of progress and community love have helped Dr. Pembleton in both her professional life as well as her spiritual and personal life.
“Sr. Thea and the Franciscan Sisters taught us the importance of education,” Dr. Pembleton said. “Education is what will make you successful. What would Sr. Thea do? It’s important to know that she would stress that you develop the talents you have, so that you can give those talents to the people you love—so that you can bless the community with your skills, whatever they may be.”
Prior to Sr. Thea Bowman’s death in 1990, Boston College awarded Sr. Thea an honorary Doctorate in religion for her contributions to the service of the Church. Establishing this celebration as an annual event, the Thea Bowman AHANA and Intercultural Center looks forward to future Thea Bowman Legacy Days to come.