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"In my life I've found laughter helpful, so I laugh."


        - Sister Thea Bowman: Almost Home



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Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration
912 Market Street
La Crosse, Wisconsin 54601
 
As the Catholic community around the world celebrates the 25th anniversary of Sister Thea Bowman's homegoing on March 30, we revel in her perpetually bright presence as a member of the FSPA community. We continue sharing our sisters' reflections of Sister Thea. Here, Sister Malinda Gerke shares a few stories that both saturate and soften the shades of her ethnic experiences with Sister Thea three and a half decades ago. 
  

Sister Thea Bowman and her amazing grace

During our formation years, because her beautiful voice didn't 'blend in' with the choir, poor Thea got in trouble. She interpreted all admonishments as 'anti-Thea.' Everyone was scolded for things like not washing the dishes clean but to Thea it was because she was black, treated as a servant. It wasn't meant that way at all. But if she wasn't disciplined, then Thea was a favorite ... not fair either.
 

Sister Thea's first ministry was teaching at Blessed Sacrament Parish-my home parish in La Crosse. She taught some of my brothers and sisters and they came home all excited: they had the 'chocolate sister!'


 

Sister Thea with her parents

Visiting Mississippi as a young FSPA in 1978, I liked to go for walks with Thea. She'd stay two or three steps behind me. I'd say, 'Come on Sister Thea, walk with me,' but she insisted, 'I can't! The black people would think I'm uppity and the white people would be sure that I am.'


I met Thea's parents that same summer and we had really nice visits. Thea's home almost felt like mine-surprising because we were a poor family yet they, her father a doctor, her mother a teacher, should have been upper class. Sister Thea explained that no white people, though, would go to him for health care, and blacks would come but didn't have any money to pay.


A Mass celebrated one spring at Viterbo University in La Crosse featured only African Americans in the sanctuary. Sister Thea asked me to sing Amazing Grace. 'But I'm not black,' I told her, and she replied 'But I want you to sing it.' So I sang with the choir, its florid harmony around me. In the end they processed out of the chapel, lively and loud, singing When the Saints Go Marching In. I stayed back but she grabbed me, wanting me to experience what she experienced.


 

Sister Malinda Gerke

During the summer I spent in Canton a companion and I were directed to attend a service at the 'white' parish in town. Sliding into a pew with plenty of room to spare, we settled to pray. Two women kneeling there, knowing I was helping at the 'black' parish, got up and moved. Civil rights laws didn't fix everything.


When I taught liturgy at a predominantly black parish, there was a white pastor who claimed he was sent there as a punishment. He didn't interact with parishioners at all. There were two white people in attendance who had to sit in back because they were 'white trash.' At a church breakfast I was invited to get in line with a family of five African American brothers: 'Come on Sister, you're one of us.' And there was Father, standing to the side. They wouldn't even let him in. It goes both ways.


As I look back at Thea's life with us and as a nationally known luminary I am struck by the courage, openness and willingness she possessed, spreading her deep, unique love of God. There is no doubt in anyone's mind that Sister Thea gave voice to 'her' people in a most joyous and understandable way.


 


Celebrate Sister Thea's joy with us today and always by granting a gift in her name. Scroll down the page and in the box marked "In memory of..." enter "Sister Thea Bowman.'