Speaking to all of the country’s bishops, as Sister Thea Bowman did in 1989, would seem like the culminating experience in such a person’s public life. But for Sister Thea that moment had come a few years earlier when she was interviewed by the legendary TV newsman Mike Wallace for “60 Minutes.
The fact that Mike Wallace was going to be interviewing her and narrating her story spoke of the producers’ regard for this woman who’d gained a reputation far beyond Canton, Miss., where she’d grown up, and La Crosse, where she professed vows as a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration and taught literature at Viterbo College. As people of a certain age will remember, Mike Wallace was usually seen on Sunday nights chasing down shady corporate executives and asking tough questions of shifty politicians. For younger readers, yes, Mike and Chris Wallace of Fox News are related – father and son.
But there would be no gotcha questions in this interview, just questions about Thea’s life as a black woman in a predominantly white society and Church, her ministry, her compelling message and her battle with cancer that began when she noticed a lump in her breast in 1984.
They sat and talked in the Canton school
where she once studied, later taught herself, and remained a dominant presence. As they spoke, Mike Wallace was clearly captivated by this woman.
Here are some of the things Sister Thea said in the story that aired in May 1987:
“I think the difference between me and some other people is that I am content to do my bit. Sometimes people think they have to do big things in order to make change. If each one of us would light the candle, we’ve got a tremendous light. …
“Oh no, I don’t preach! I witness. I testify. I share the Good News of Jesus Christ. The priests can preach. You know women don’t preach in the Catholic Church. …
“Who you gonna listen to first, the official preacher or your own mama? I think women have always had influence within our own communities and always will. So if I can’t preach in the Church, that’s all right with me. I can preach in the school. I can preach in the home. I can preach on the bus. I can preach on the train. I can preach on the street. …
“Black is beautiful. You have to believe it. Should I try it out on Mike Wallace? Black is beautiful, and then you take your finger and point it at yourself and say, ‘I am beautiful.’ And some children have a hard time saying that. When I say that I am beautiful, what does that mean? It means I am caring. It means I respect myself. It means I am confident. When I work with children, I always say to the kids, repeat after me: ‘I am poised’ … and they go through that (litany). …
“I still didn’t hear Mike Wallace say black is beautiful.”
Mike Wallace said, “Black is beautiful.” Sister Thea replied, “Amen!”
She died in March 1990 at the age of 52. In 2018, the Diocese of Jackson, Miss., initiated a process that might one day lead to the canonization of Sister Thea as a saint.
Last month the bishops of Jackson and Biloxi, Miss., identified Sister Thea as “an icon of hope” in the ongoing pursuit of racial justice. In declaring racism a “force of destruction that eats away at the soul of our nation,” the bishops said, “Sister Thea’s life and legacy can provide a way forward for our church and nation that is grounded in gospel faith, hope and love.” TL