Born at the same time in the same small southern town during the same Jim Crow era, the lives of Sister Thea Bowman and I ran as parallel as the Illinois Central railroad tracks that separated the town.
She, was baptized Bertha Bowman, a Protestant African American and the only child of Dr. Theon Bowman and Mary Esther Bowman who lived in the Black local community of Canton MS. I was baptized a Catholic at the basically White Sacred Heart Catholic Church as one of six children who lived on the other side of the tracks in the country. My father was a farmer.
As unlikely an event as one can imagine, our lives crossed in 1955 when my parents attended services and became involved in the Holy Child Jesus community in Canton. At the time, Holy Child Jesus mission was served by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration out of La Crosse Wisconsin. When I first learned of Sister Thea, she had already converted to Catholicism and joined the all-white religious Congregation in La Crosse.
Almost immediately, she became a public figure, first by the anomaly of being the one and only Southern Black in the basically German all-white Congregation in the North and then by her extraordinary presence as an orator, singer, and proponent of multicultural recognition of all cultures in our American way of life.
Having moved to New Orleans, I followed her life through my parents and published articles. By and large, although not well known outside the Catholic community, she became a recognizable public figure. She obtained her Ph.D in English Language and Literature at Catholic University of America after which she was sought after as speaker, lecturer, and presenter by venues all over the country. She was catapulted into the general public eye in 1987 when she was interviewed by Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes. At that time, she was suffering from Stage 4 cancer. Despite her suffering, Mike Wallace was overcome by her joy, her laughter, her fearlessness, and her dedication to an unpopular message.
At the time, I was a columnist for The Times Picayune in New Orleans and upon hearing of her lectures at Xavier University for the The Institute of Black Catholic Studies, which she co-founded, I asked to cover her story. I did not realize what I was in for. I had heard Thea did not sit for a conventional interview, but I did not know I should have worn flat shoes. I struggled to keep up as her caretaker rolled her wheelchair over broken sidewalks at Xavier, as I attended her classes and heard her break into song in the middle of her point, as I watched her comfort a seminarian who had just lost his mother with “Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child,” as I found myself waving my hands Alleluia at the three-hour Mass service in the packed auditorium. There were times when she collapsed in bed, in pain from the cancer that had invaded her bones. Still, she wanted to go on. I interviewed her for three days.
I did not know that on the third and final day, I would experience the surprise of my life. Harry Belafonte and crew arrived to direct a film of her life. I called the photographer of the paper and said, “Get here.” There is a picture in the Times of Harry Belafonte rolling Thea around in a wheel chair emulating what is known as “The Second Line” in New Orleans. Unfortunately, the film never materialized. Thea died on March 30, 1990.
There have been wonderful biographies and articles and art works depicting the life of Thea Bowman. Somehow I felt the need to put her back on stage. Having experienced as a child the sameness and differences in our two cultures and knowing her wonderful parents and her schoolmates at the time, I felt I possessed a unique perspective and understanding of her conflicts and her triumps. Thus, Thea’s Turn.
-Mary Queen Donnelly
Mary Queen Donnelly, a contemporary of Sister Thea Bowman, was born and raised in the same hometown: Canton, MS. Their paths crossed on several occasions, but in a significant way in 1988, two years before Sister Thea’s death. Her play, "Thea’s Turn", is taken from her relationship, interviews, and memories of Sister Thea Bowman.
To buy a perusal or get a license for "Thea's Turn" visit the show page at the Stage Rights website.