Saturday, July 18, 2020

Sister Thea: The Voice We Need Right Now

From the photo shoot for the
1998 album cover. 
"She's a saint. I hope you realize that," the visiting archbishop said as he left our convent. It was 1988, and he had come for a private visit with Sister Thea Bowman, FSPA. Sister Thea was staying in our infirmary; she had been diagnosed with cancer four years earlier. Her companion and caregiver, Sister Dorothy ("Dort") went everywhere with her, because cancer did not stand a chance against Thea Bowman's intention to fill every moment available to her. And with less than two years left on this earth, Sister Thea had come to create her first solo album of spirituals in our then-new recording studio.

The idea came from two of our sisters who met with Sister Thea while she was in town to give a talk. She listened to the proposal, and then grilled the sisters to make sure that the album would be directed toward sharing the sacred songs of her ancestors across the Catholic communities, and would not be a token project. She also wanted to name her own collaborators. They came to an agreement pretty quickly, and within months the microphones were being set up in the James Alberione studio.

Downstairs, Leon C. Roberts (founder of the Howard University Gospel Choir, and music director at St Augustine's Catholic Church in Washington DC) was the arranger and played keyboard for the recording. Sister Thea had also invited singers from Cincinnati, Washington DC and New Orleans (yay!). (Sr Thea taught preaching at the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University, which she had helped establish.) Jerry Barnes, producer of many of our choir albums, was in the control room; Boston musicians handled the drums and other instruments.

I was stationed in the motherhouse during that time, but the members of the community did not see much of Sister Thea and her entourage, who spent most of the day in the studio. I remember our being advised that Sister's health was very poor (the wheelchair was a pretty good indicator of that), and it was impressed upon us that we should not get in the way. There was a cot in the studio so Sister could rest between takes. (I understand that Mr. Roberts sometimes had to pressure Sister Thea to take advantage of it.)

Bertha Bowman two years before she
decided to become Catholic. She entered
the FSPA community in LaCrosse, WI at
age 15, having been impressed by the
sister's Christian charity among the
people of color in segregated
Mississippi. On making vows,
Bertha took the name
Sister Mary Thea.
Photo: FSPA
The superiors meant well, but now that I am learning more about Sister Thea and her ministry (it's been like she has been working with me!), I don't think she would have been pleased to know that's why we weren't hanging around. She wanted to bring people together. She wanted the opportunity to share the gifts of her Black Catholic culture with others. She wanted to meet people, one on one, and give them the gift of her complete attention. "When you were with Sister Thea, you felt that you were the only person in the world she was with. If she couldn't give you her full attention, she would physically move away," rather than treat you in a distracted manner, Father Maurice Nutt, a former student (and her biographer) told us the other day.

Just over a year after Songs of My People and 'Round the Glory Manger were released on stereo audiocassette, Sister Thea Bowman died of cancer. She was just 52 years old.

In 2018, the Diocese of Jackson, MS (where Sister Thea had led the Office of Intercultural Affairs) got the ball rolling to have the Church officially state what that visiting Archbishop (and thousands of ordinary Catholics) have been saying for years: that Sister Thea Bowman was (and is) a saint among us. She's now got a new title: "Servant of God" and a cadre of people doing the things that canonization processes require. Inspired by the process, our publishing house planned to re-release Sister Thea's songs in digital format for the 30th anniversary of her death (March 30). Then came a series of pandemic-related slowdowns.

The "complete collection" (comprised of songs from two cassettes) was still in the works when George Floyd was killed. The racial injustice against which Sister Thea spoke so forthrightly during her lifetime came roaring back into the headlines, making Sister Thea's ministry more necessary than ever, but there was nothing we could do to speed things up.

Finally, now, Sister Thea's voice is back.

Truthfully, even though the recording was done in 1988, I am convinced that God's providence intended it for our times. Sister Thea used song to bring people together. As I listen to that powerful voice, thinking of Sister Thea belting out those notes from a wheelchair (as a singer, I don't know how she did it), I hear not only the cries of her ancestors in the Mississippi fields, but also the unarticulated cries of mothers and fathers today who see their children taken from them by violence, by drugs, by pornography and other Internet addictions. When Sister Thea sings songs of joy, I find a voice that gives me permission to enter fully into the gifts of God without worrying for the future. When she sings longingly of crossing over Jordan, the built-up tensions in my brow (and even in my fingers!) releases: There is a "campground" of family reunion that awaits me, too. The anxieties of the present will not endure forever.

The songs of her people are meant to be a gift to all people. Of course, the songs represent the whole of the people's story, read in the light of God's wisdom. That makes the spirituals a much-needed form of evangelization, but also a form of prayer that can be used for personal prayer as well as for public worship. What I am learning from Sister Thea is not only to "weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice" (Rom 12:15), but not to be shy or hesitant in expressing my own pain or gladness or yearning before the Lord and his people. A stiff upper lip, Sister Thea teaches me, is not the sign of a Christian. Let it out (preferably in a heartfelt song). You may find that others will join in, and suddenly divisions and suspicions are transcended and we discover communion.

I really do feel that Sister Thea is saying, "Here I am. Here's my voice: Let my voice out among the people now."

You can get a taste of Sister Thea's prayerful voice and her longing to cross the Jordan, with this song from the Complete Collection. Download Songs of My People: The Complete Collection from your favorite digital music provider.

"In the days of slavery, separated from kin and country, my ancesters longed for home. Home is where love is, where you are nurtured and sheltered and challenged and comforted. For slaves who longed so passionately for home, home became a figure of heaven, the heavenly City, where there would be no separation, no death, no auction block, no moaning, no weeping or wailing, no sorrow, no loss....where all will know we are His because we love one another."


Unknown said...

Sister Anne, thank you for writing about this newly recognized Servant of God in the Church. Sr. Thea Bowman was the commencement speaker at my graduation from the University of Notre Dame in 1990. She was unable to attend however, and so we listened to her moving recorded message. How wonderful to know that the FSP sisters took care of her and collaborated with her to bring her voice to the world. Blessings~Lisa

Sister Anne said...