The whispers began before Sister Thea Bowman reached Colorado for one of the final mission trips she would make before dying in 1990 at the age of 52.
The only African-American in the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, Bowman was a charismatic teacher, singer and evangelist, and her ministry continued after cancer put her in a wheelchair.
Behind the scenes, folks at Our Queen of Peace parish near Denver were asking this question: Would this woman someday be hailed as St. Thea of Mississippi?
After her arrival, a local priest watched as Sister Thea led an interracial youth choir, rehearsing a gospel hymn, “Give Me That Old-Time Religion,” as well as the children’s song she included in each service -- “This Little Light of Mine (I’m Gonna Let It Shine).”
Yes, people were talking about Sister Thea and sainthood, said Father William Breslin, pastor of that Aurora parish in 1989.
”Sometimes you have that sneaking suspicion,” he said. “It’s neat to be able to meet a person and experience ... that special quality we can only call ‘holiness.’“
Three decades later, the U.S. Catholic bishops paused in Baltimore for a “canonical consultation,” considering requests for a Vatican tribunal to begin investigating whether to declare Sister Thea a saint. On Nov. 14, the bishops said “yes.”
”The faithful in, and well beyond, the Diocese of Jackson” have made this request, Bishop Joseph Kopacz told the bishops. “Well before I arrived in Jackson (in 2014), the requests were coming in. ... The church embraced Sister Thea from her early years, but there were times when she felt like a motherless child.”
During her 1989 “Sharing the Good News” mission -- which I covered for The Rocky Mountain News -- Sister Thea smiled, but shook her head, when asked about the whispers. She would talk about the word “saint” as long as she could define the term.
”People who really know me, they know all about my struggles,” said an exhausted Bowman, leaning on the arm of her wheelchair after one service.
”You see, I’m black,” she added, with a quiet laugh. “I guess the word ‘saint’ has a different meaning for me. I was raised in a community where ... we were always saying things like, ‘The saints would be coming into church today’ or ‘The saints will really be dancing and singing this Sunday.’“
Sister Thea, of course, was aware of the iconic role that “saints” played in church history. While teaching in rural Mississippi, she encouraged her students by posting images of saints and biblical heroes from Africa in her classroom: from St. Felicitas to St. Moses the Black, from St. Monica to St. Benedict the Moor.
During her final speaking tours, she joked about black Catholics kneeling at altars carved out of fine Italian marble. These black Catholics gazed at sacred images carved by European artists many centuries after the lives of numerous early church saints who lived and worshipped in the lands already being called “Africa.”
”I know that people are looking for sources of hope and courage and strength,” she told me, clasping a warm robe with hands thinned by cancer. “I know that it’s important to have special people to look up to. ... But, see, I think all of us in the church are supposed to be that kind of person for each other.”
In her 1989 talks, she constantly returned to images of faith, family and the ties that bind through the generations. Bowman talked about workaholic parents who give their children toys -- but little of their own time. She talked about broken homes and marriages. She praised parents who set a strict, but loving, example -- showing children they “aren’t fools ... who will tolerate insanity.”
”Remember the old days? ... Remember those old family stories? You didn’t know they were telling you WHO you are and WHOSE you are,” she said, urgently. “Hard times test us. ... This is family business, people. This is the church and we are the family and we have to take care of family business. ... I am not talking about the way of the WORLD. I am talking about the way of the CHURCH.”
All the people said, “Amen.”
(Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.)