Sister Thea Bowman Book Review

Book Review by Ann Jonas, Tradebook Buyer - CSB/SJU Bookstores
this review was published in the St. Cloud Visitor

Within the past year two books of note have been published about Sister Thea Bowman, an African American Franciscan Sister from Mississippi who died in 1990 of breast cancer. This Little Light: Lessons in Living from Sister Thea Bowman by Brother Michael O'Neill McGrath was published by Orbis in October 2008 and Thea Bowman: In My Own Words, by Maurice J. Nutt, C.Ss.R. was published by Liguori in January 2009. Both books honor the life and gifts of Sister Thea and offer inspiration to learn more about this amazing woman.

Born Bertha Bowman in Yazoo City, Mississippi in 1937, she was the granddaughter of a slave and the only child of a doctor and teacher. She was raised as a Methodist. When the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration arrived from LaCrosse, Wisconsin, to establish a Catholic School for African Americans in Canton, Mississippi, her parents enrolled her in the school. At age 10, Bertha decided to become Catholic, not because of theology or doctrine, but because of the way Catholics seemed to love and care for one another, especially the poor and the needy. At age 15, she joined the Franciscan Sisters in LaCrosse and took the name Sister Thea. She trained to be a teacher and eventually earned a doctorate in English literature and linguistics from Catholic University of America. During that time Sr. Thea developed a deep appreciation for her identity as both an African American and as a Catholic. She introduced traditional African American music into the liturgy and gave lectures and performances on the history of black sacred music. She had a great love for the spirituals that were passed down to her from her ancestors.

In This Little Light, McGrath uses her beloved African American Gospel songs to head each of the ten chapters. The book is illustrated with McGrath’s rich and colorful paintings, words from the chosen songs, along with some of Sr. Thea’s wise quotations. The text consists of her biography and McGrath’s reflection on her life and teaching. The book’s chapter on Sr. Thea’s cancer diagnosis is titled “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” and features her quote “When I hurt I like to sing some of the old songs. I find that prayer and song can take me beyond the pain.” The book is a vibrant celebration of a gifted and spiritual woman.

Fr. Maurice Nutt, author of Thea Bowman: In My Own Words, knew Sr. Thea as a teacher, mentor and friend. His book gives a brief history of Sr. Thea and then also heads each chapter with an African American Spiritual song. The text contains a compilation of Sr. Thea’s reflections and is divided into fourteen themes, including “On Being Black and Catholic”, “Jesus and Justice” and “Faith”. In the chapter on faith, she is quoted from her interview with Mike Wallace on “60 Minutes”: “I think the difference between me and some other people is that I am content to do my little bit. Sometimes people think they have to do big things in order to make change. If each one of us would light a candle, we’ve got a tremendous light.” Nutt collected Sr. Thea’s quotes and reflections from her preaching, national addresses, professional writings, personal correspondence and the “60 Minutes” interview. The book includes quotes from her 1989 address to the U.S. Catholic bishops at their annual meeting. By then her health was failing, but she gave a passionate talk on African American history and spirituality and what it means to be black and Catholic.

Both of these books offer insight into a woman who embraced her Catholic faith and her African American culture. Her wisdom and spirited living are an inspiration to all cultures and faiths.


click on book image or title in red to order.