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One-Woman Show Celebrates the Work of Sister Thea Bowman

Sometimes people think they have to do big things in order to make change, but if each one would light a candle, we’d have a tremendous light.” – Sister Thea Bowman

Sister Thea Bowman not only shared this advice with others, she lived it on a daily basis, which helped her become one of the Roman Catholic Church’s strongest advocates for intercultural awareness. The Thea Bowman Center, which serves the needs of Cleveland’s Mt. Pleasant community, is named for this trailblazing nun.

Bowman advocated to have not only African-American customs and music incorporated into the rituals of the church but those of other groups whose cultures had also been under represented. Bowman’s life will be celebrated to benefit the Bowman Center at St. Noel’s Church in Willoughby Hills on Sunday, as actress Sherrie Tolliver presents her one-woman show, “ A Sunday Soiree with Sister.”

Bowman was born in Yazoo, Mississippi, in 1937. Her father was a doctor and her mother a teacher, but their community was very poor.

When the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration came to Yazoo to open a mission, Bowman was taken with the way the nuns approached their work, according to Tolliver.

“She was so impressed by the fact that they didn’t come and patronize the community. They came to work side-by-side with the community. That struck her, especially in the South, where the blatant racism and belief that you either give handouts to people or you don’t help them at all, (instead) they treated them as equals. They tried to empower the community,” Tolliver said.

Bowman asked her Methodist parents if she could convert to Catholicism at age 10, which they allowed. When she turned 15, she moved to Wisconsin to join the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, becoming the first African-American to join the order. She took Thea, as her religious name, which means “Of God.”

By 1968, her superiors thought she would be a great college professor, so they sent Bowman to graduate school at Catholic University in Washington D.C. It was at this time that Bowman, who had often been the only African-American in a sea of whites Catholics, really began to push to see her culture incorporated into the church.

“The Catholic Church really wasn’t embracing the fact that it was multicultural and international. It was still very Euro-centric and closed to change,” Tolliver said. “She (Bowman) said: ‘African-American voices need to be represented too.’" 

Bowman teamed with Cleveland Auxiliary Bishop James Lyke to create “Lead Me, Guide Me,” which was the first African-American Catholic hymnal. She also became a college professor, founding the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans.

Perhaps most importantly, she became the public face and voice of advocating that African-Americans be recognized not only within the church but society in general. This work led to an appearance on the CBS television program, “60 Minutes,” where she famously persuaded a somewhat reluctant Mike Wallace to proclaim “black is beautiful.”

Bowman continued her work until she died of cancer in 1990 at age 52. A movement is now underway to have her declared a saint of the Catholic Church.

Tolliver, who is part of the acting group “ Women in History,” has portrayed famous figures in history ranging from pioneering aviator Bessie Coleman to abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe. Tolliver said portraying Bowman has been easy.

“When I look at her picture, it just emanates all this love and joy. Some characters you do, it’s hard to dig in and get ahold of them. She just comes right to you. She came right to me. ‘Tell my story.’ It’s joy. The world needs joy now. The world needs people that understand that we can reach out across barriers and find a common ground because we can love each other. I’m overjoyed to be able to share her story,” Tolliver said.