Every Boston College student is aware of the long line of colonial-style houses lining College Road, but few know the extent of what these welcoming offices have to offer. One house in particular—number 72 — is named after a candidate for sainthood, and was home to a center named in honor of the same candidate (the center itself has moved to Maloney Hall)
This candidate is Sister Thea Bowman of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. Known as a groundbreakingly influential African American Catholic, she began her life full of service to God in Mississippi. Born in 1937, young Thea loved to observe and listen to members of her community who “exposed [her] to the richness of African American culture and spirituality, most especially the history, stories, songs, prayers, customs and traditions.” Through the example of her role models, Thea developed a soul-defining belief in God and His ability to guide the poor and oppressed.
At the age of 15, Thea traveled far from Mississippi to join an order of religious sisters in which she was the only African American. The turbulence of the mid-late 20th century seemed to have brought out the best of Sr. Thea’s ingenuity–– she forged her way through a political culture stacked against her to become a great evangelist, writer, and teacher, who advocated for the advancement of people of color in the education system.
In 1978, Sr. Thea seized the opportunity to return to Mississippi and direct the Office of Intercultural Affairs for the Diocese of Jackson. Throughout the following years, Sr. Thea heroically continued to work against racial prejudice and exemplify cultural awareness in her leadership position and beyond.
When 1984 came around, breast cancer challenged Sr. Thea’s physical mobility but, vowing to “live fully until I die,” she trekked on to continue her mission of spreading God’s love and acceptance of all people. Her unique perspective built around an African American and Catholic identity was one the world needed. While undergoing treatment for her illness, Sister Thea addressed the United States’ bishops at the Conference for Black Catholics. From her wheelchair she “urged the bishops to continue to evangelize the African American community, to promote inclusivity and full participation of African Americans within Church leadership, and to understand the necessity and value of Catholic schools in the African American community.”
Before her death in 1990, Sr. Thea conveyed a last sentiment of humility: “I want people to remember that I tried to love the Lord and that I tried to love them.” Even while enduring the struggle of faith and oppression, Sr. Thea consistently acted on her intense love for the marginalized.
Her legacy touches Boston College in a special way. The Thea Bowman AHANA and Intercultural Center commits to Sr. Thea’s vision as it “promotes equity, builds community, and supports opportunity” with a focus on multiracial, AHANA, and Options Through Education students. Offering scholarships, mentors, counseling, and much more, the Bowman Center carries on Sr. Thea’s aspirations for a just and accepting society.
Because of her faith-filled passion and nonstop work for positive change, her cause for canonization opened in late 2018. The process of becoming an official saint in the Catholic Church is often long and complicated, but the cause is hopeful for those who share Sr. Thea’s mission, especially at BC.