Authors Charlene Smith, FSPA, and John Feister tell the story of a remarkable African American LaCrosse, Wisconsin Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration (FSPA). For many American Catholics, the life and accomplishments of Sister Thea Bowman came alive during the 1970s and 1980s as they heard her speak, joined her in exuberant song, and accompanied her during her dying process. For them, Smith and Feister provide helpful details that fill in the gaps of Thea’s life. For those who have never heard of Sister Thea Bowman, the authors provide a thorough and fascinating introduction to her life and times. The authors celebrate Thea’s accomplishments with a restraint that invites the reader to supply emotional content.
Born in segregated Canton, Mississippi in 1937, and inspired by the Caucasian FSPA Sisters who came to serve the poor in young Bertha Bowman’s section of town, “Birdie” forsook her Protestant faith and worship style and joined the Roman Catholic Church at age 9 and moved to LaCrosse to become an FSPA aspirant at the age of 15. While Dr. and Mrs. Bowman tried to dissuade their only child from taking this radical leap in faith, their daughter stood firm in her resolve to serve others as the Sisters had served her. Despite bouts with tuberculosis, homesickness, and racism, Sister Thea persevered to the end. Recognizing her exceptional talents, the FSPA congregation eventually sent Thea to Catholic University, where she earned a Ph.D. in English and taught at Viterbo College (now University), her alma mater and the FSPA’s own school. Wishing to be of service to her ailing parents, Thea moved back to Mississippi and into a position created for her by Bishop Joseph Brunini to do intercultural ministry in the diocese. Thea’s ingenuity and reclamation of her own native worship style catapulted her into national and international prominence as she worked toward racial and religious reconciliation around the world. Cancer eventually took her life in 1990, but not before her wheelchair bound body and unfettered soul touched the hearts of the Catholic Bishops in their assembly and the millions of viewers who watched her story on CBS’s 60 Minutes.
Thea’s Song won the prestigious Christopher Award in 2011 and has inspired its readers since its publication. While the authors resist the temptation to preach and canonize Thea prematurely, they cannot hide the fact that this outstanding woman obviously meant a great deal to them.
Whether she was relating to children or to world famous authors and entertainers, the book relates the story of a woman who valued the persons in her midst. She celebrated her life and the lives of those with whom she ministered, despite intense suffering. Interesting vignettes include meetings with such notables as Whoopi Goldberg and Harry Belafonte as they attempted to film the life of Thea as well as numerous mentions of professor and writer Margaret Walker.
One of the most striking aspects of this book is its honest depiction of religious life. The authors neither sugarcoat the racism experienced by Thea in her chosen community nor inflate the significance of the unflagging care and concern that was bestowed upon her all along the way. The reader is left to appreciate the tremendous gifts that communities of religious women have always brought to this world and, in particular, to celebrate the Franciscan Sisters of LaCrosse, who nurtured Thea and did their very best to respect her culture and traditions as well as to celebrate her outstanding and singular contributions to God’s people.