By Emily Clark
FAIRFIELD- A lightning rod. A preacher. A profound cultural advocate. A modern African-American sister. These descriptors, proclaimed by those paying tribute to her on film, characterize Thea Bowman, a woman who shared the message of God’s love and left a lasting impact on Blacks and Catholics worldwide.
In observance of National Black Catholic History month, the Social Justice committee at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Fairfield sponsored a showing the documentary film, “Going Home Like a Shooting Star: Thea Bowman’s Journey to Sainthood” on Sunday afternoon, November 5 in their parish hall. According to committee chair Donna Spigarolo, the 65 people in attendance were deeply moved by the film and the conversations that followed.
“It showed that people are interested in racial justice and want to learn more and also learn how we can do better by owning our history and moving forward in an equitable way,” she said. “Her story really affected people. They were getting out the tissues at the end.”
That story is one of great faith despite the blatant racism, prejudice, and inequality that Sister Thea faced growing up Protestant in 1940s Mississippi. When the eight-year-old witnessed the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, who had arrived in her community to establish a school for Black children, treating all people with the utmost respect, she told her parents she wanted to convert to Catholicism. They resisted but eventually relented. “A burning desire was there,” said Spigarolo, and she then entered the convent at age 15.
While in the order of Perpetual Adoration, Sister Thea became a teacher, musician, evangelizer, liturgist, and scholar, telling everyone that they were God’s children, often through song.
“She had a world class singing voice with a depth of hope,” said Spigarolo.
Eleanor Sauers, the parish life coordinator at St. Anthony, felt “Going Home Like a Shooting Star” depicted an honest view of Sister Thea, saying, “The movie was uplifting in so many ways. It showed her as a real person with an incredible vocation and how she made such a difference.”
Sister Thea’s message of hope, racial equality, and love of God is one that the Social Justice committee also wished to honor, especially during National Black Catholic History month. Following the hour-long documentary, attendees sitting at tables of seven enjoyed refreshments and engaged in a discussion of her life, spending more than 30 minutes sharing responses to such questions as “What action, if any, are you motivated to take in light of the story about Sister Thea’s life and work?” According to Spigarolo, the conversations always circled back to social justice and her unending joy, even in the face of adversity.
Dan Braccio, a member of the social justice committee, also witnessed that same engagement.
“Conversations at the tables after the film were unanimous in their admiration for Sister Thea Bowman’s dedication to her vocation and the joy that she brought to others through her gifts of song and preaching,” he said.
After being diagnosed with breast cancer in 1984, Sister Thea died six years later at age 52 and received the University of Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal posthumously that year.
“We were all so sorry that her life was cut short,” Spigarolo said. “She could have accomplished so much more.” What she did accomplish led the Diocese of Jackson, Miss. to open the canonization process for Sister Thea, and much support has been given to the cause. According to the documentary, she is currently one of six Black Catholics under consideration for sainthood.
“Even those who had seen the movie previously were touched by the strength of Thea’s vocation,” Braccio said. “Several professed religious in the audience had actually seen her in person.”
Spigarolo herself recalled attending a conference for religious educators in Washington, D.C. years ago at which Sister Thea spoke and sang with her characteristic joy.
“I’ve never heard anyone proclaim the Word like she did. She had us up singing! It was such a beautiful experience,” Spigarolo remembered.
Because of the success of this event, Sauers said the Social Justice committee is planning similar events in the future. Their studies of racial issues in the Catholic Church began two years ago as they read books and attended workshops on micro aggression. With a strong commitment to charitable work and social justice, this group has become very active in the community.
“We need to do better,” Spigarolo said, regarding racial justice, “and we look to God and Sister Thea for guidance.”