According to NewGroup Media, the film will explore Sister Thea’s life and path to sainthood through interviews and commentary from her family, sisters in her community, colleagues, friends, and former students.
Judith Zielinski, OSF, director of faith and values programming for NewGroup Media and writer/producer for the Sister Thea Bowman documentary stated, “This one hour documentary covers her entire life. Looking back at the programs that were filmed in the past, they were done while she was still alive. This is a look at a woman who died about thirty years ago, and it involves many people that knew her first hand.”
Sister Thea Bowman was born Bertha Elizabeth Bowman in 1937 in Yazoo City, Mississippi, to Dr. Theon Bowman, a physician, and Mary Esther Bowman, a teacher. Earlier on in Sister Thea’s life, her family moved to Canton, where she attended Holy Child Jesus Church and School run by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration (FSPA). Despite being baptized Episcopalian and raised Methodist as a child, she became Catholic at nine and joined the FSPA at fifteen. She then left Mississippi for LaCrosse, Wisconsin, becoming the only African American in her religious community.
Her name was changed to “Sister Mary Thea” in honor of her parents, in which “Thea” means “God.” In 1965, she earned a B.A. in English from Viterbo University. She also received an M.A. in English in 1969 and a Ph.D in English in 1972 from the Catholic University of America. Over the years, Bowman became a notable evangelist, teacher, and singer teaching about racial inclusivity and the Catholic faith lifestyle.
In 1978, Sister Thea returned home to care for her aging parents with the blessings and approval of the FSPA. Also in 1978, she accepted an appointment to serve as a director for the Office of Intercultural Affairs for the Diocese of Jackson by Bishop Joseph Bernard Brunini. In 1984, Bowman was diagnosed with breast cancer and lost both of her parents.
Despite facing difficult challenges with breast cancer, she continued traveling and doing speaking engagements to spread the news about God and the African American race. In 1987, Bowman appeared on the CBS segment, 60 Minutes, with Mike Wallace. In 1989, she was invited to address the full body of U.S. Bishops, speaking on what it means to be Black and Catholic.
In her final days, Father John Ford, ST, asked her about what she would like to be said at her funeral, and her response was “Tell them what Sojourner Truth said about her eventual death: I’m not going to die. I’m going home like a shooting star.”
At five o’clock on the morning of March 30, 1990, Sister Thea Bowman died peacefully in her home in Canton, Mississippi.
“I want people to remember that I tried to love the Lord and that I tried to love them,” Sister Thea Bowman said as she gave her last wishes, emphasizing that she wanted “She tried” engraved on her tombstone.
“This program hopes to connect her teachings and her statements about race relations in a moment when we’re dealing with [the] Black Lives Matter [movement], and we’re dealing with a lot of racial and social polarization in the country,” Zielinski said. Besides new footage, there will be other excerpts of media that showcase Sister Thea in action. There will also be inputs from African-American scholars, clerics, and bishops that will speak on the ongoing issue of systemic racism in the church and country.
“The most important locations were, first, the Bowman family home on Hill Street in Canton. We had access to the house where Thea was raised as a child. We also shot various scenes and did interviews of four women that were her friends and colleagues at the Canton Tourism center downtown,” Zielinski said.
The documentary is currently in production and is expected to be released in the fall of 2022.