Sr. Thea Bowman
Category: University News

Title: Georgetown Names Chapel in Honor of Black Catholic Nun, Racial Justice Advocate

Date Published: May 5, 2022

The chapel, a home for Catholic and Protestant faith communities at Georgetown, will now be called the Servant of God Sr. Thea Bowman Chapel of St. William. The term “Servant of God” refers to Sr. Thea’s official designation as a person in the first stage of canonization in the Roman Catholic Church. 

Sr. Thea is also the recipient of an honorary degree from Georgetown. She visited the Hilltop in 1989 in the months before her death to accept the degree and to speak to first year students. 

Sr. Thea Bowman’s witness to her faith embodies everything we hold dear as a Georgetown community,” says Fr. Mark Bosco, S.J., vice president of Mission & Ministry, who presided over the service. “We hope the Sr. Thea Bowman Chapel enlivens our Protestant community in its worship and in its song, and we hope that she will inspire Hoyas of all Christian denominations to truly strive to become People for Others.”

Cardinal Wilton Gregory, archbishop of Washington, DC, Georgetown President John J. DeGioia and members of Sr. Thea’s religious order, the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration (FSPA), attended the service, which was followed by a dialogue in Dahlgren Chapel about Sr. Thea’s life, legacy and continuing call for inclusion and racial justice.

The Cause for Chapel Renaming

A picture of Elijah Hines (C’23)
Elijah Hines (C’23) was a member of the Office of Mission & Ministry’s committee to name the chapel.

The decision to name St. William Chapel stems from the Office of Mission and Ministry’s decade of renovations and work to discern how best to reflect the university’s diverse communities of faith and values in its sacred spaces. 

From 2020-2021, a committee of students, faculty and staff began meeting to discuss proposed names for the newly renovated St. William Chapel.

St. William Chapel had been originally called The Cowardin Chapel of St. William, for William Reynolds Cowardin, S.J. (1849-1925), a student and later a professor and chaplain at Georgetown who, during the Civil War, fought as a member of the Confederate Army.

Elijah Hines (C’23), a committee member and student leader in the Protestant community’s Sunday worship services, was one of the students to propose Sr. Thea while researching names to consider.

“I think the thing that drew me to her was her affirmation of both her racial and religious identity — she was fully herself and not afraid to address problems within her faith institutions,” Hines says.

Sr. Thea’s Journey to Sainthood

Sr. Thea was born in Mississippi in 1937. Her grandparents had been enslaved, and she grew up in a Protestant family.

At age 12, she converted to Catholicism, inspired by the FSPA who ran her grade school. At age 15, she moved to LaCrosse, Wisconsin, to enter the FSPA. She was the only Black sister in her religious community. She went on to teach and earn her Ph.D. from the Catholic University of America.

Ebony Grisom, interim director of Protestant Ministry
Rev. Ebony Grisom, interim director of Protestant ministry at Georgetown and a Mission & Ministry committee member, at Georgetown’s ecumenical naming service.

Sr. Thea dedicated her life to teaching, social justice, civil rights, evangelizing and empowering Black Catholics, and advocating for a more inclusive Church. She helped establish the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University, created the first hymnal that incorporates gospel music and served as the director of the Office of Intercultural Affairs for the Catholic Diocese of Jackson, Mississippi.

“Her ability and willingness to remain rooted in her Black identity reminds us to embrace humanity’s expanse,” says Rev. Ebony Grisom, interim director of Protestant ministry at Georgetown and a Mission & Ministry committee member. “Sr. Bowman’s life and legacy continue each time a Black Christian brings their whole selves to their worship communities with conviction and courage; and each time that Christians challenge their Church to be the Church and eradicate racism.”

“Sr. Bowman’s life and legacy continue each time a Black Christian brings their whole selves to their worship communities with conviction and courage; and each time that Christians challenge their Church to be the Church and eradicate racism.”

Rev. Ebony Grisom

In 1984, Sr. Thea was diagnosed with breast cancer, and amidst ongoing treatments and pain, continued to travel across the country in a wheelchair for speaking engagements. In 1989, the year before she died, she gave a notable address to the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB), describing the experience of Black Catholics and urging U.S. bishops to continue to evangelize and promote Black Americans within the Church.

“As a Catholic nun, Sr. Thea never lost touch with her Protestant roots, and her life and work reflect a genuine commitment to ecumenism in the Christian community,” Fr. Bosco says. “She was committed to the life of the mind, and took her education as seriously as she did her ministry. She was committed to the Black Catholic community, and to addressing the injustices that confronted them – both from inside the Church and from outside it.”

Sr. Thea Bowman accepted an honorary degree from Georgetown in 1989
In 1989, Sr. Thea Bowman accepted an honorary degree from Georgetown and sang and spoke to first year students in the Leavey Center Ballroom.

The same year as the USCCB address, Sr. Thea visited Georgetown to accept an honorary degree. She sang and spoke to first year undergraduate students only a few days after they arrived on campus at the university’s convocation ceremony in the Leavey Center Ballroom. According to a 1989 article in The Hoya, she said to students: “Your freshman year is a year of power — a year to learn for yourself. Come together today to say ‘I need your courage and help if I am going to make it out of this world.’” 

“The strength of her conviction, and the impact of her words and example are just as vital to us today as they were three decades ago,” DeGioia said during the May 3 ecumenical service. 

Continuing Sr. Thea’s Legacy at Georgetown

After Georgetown’s naming ceremony, four Catholic leaders, including Archbishop Gregory, the former president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, discussed Sr. Thea’s enduring call to resist racism and overcome racial divisions.

In the tradition of Sr. Thea, the Georgetown University Gospel Choir led the group in song before beginning the dialogue in Dahlgren Chapel.

For Hines, the student committee member, Sr. Thea inspires him to act for justice.

“Having her as our chapel’s namesake allows us to reflect on all the work she was able to do in her life and utilize it in our own service to the Protestant community at Georgetown and our service to God and the world.”

Elijah Hines (C’23)

“Sr. Thea represents someone who had the ability to call in,” he says. “She was able to bring light to those who needed a voice and, importantly, deepen our relationship with God. Having her as our chapel’s namesake allows us to reflect on all the work she was able to do in her life and utilize it in our own service to the Protestant community at Georgetown and our service to God and the world.”

Rev. TauVaughn Toney, Georgetown’s new Protestant chaplain, said that the new chapel name represents a call to live up to Sr. Thea’s life and legacy.

“It is my hope that students, not just Black ones, are inspired by her legacy to bring their Blackness, their queerness, their uniqueness, their ideas — everything God has given them into every space and opportunity they enter — and especially into that chapel!” he says. “The naming of The Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman Chapel of St. William is just the beginning, now we all must live up to the name.”