The Catholic University of America will host Fr Manuel Williams, CR on Tuesday, February 15th for a Black History Month lecture on Servant of God Thea Bowman, an alumna of the school who is on the path to sainthood.
Entitled “The Wisdom of Sr. Thea Bowman for a Church in Crisis”, the event will focus on the life and ministry of Bowman, whom Williams knew personally before her death from cancer in 1990.
It is being co-sponsored by the Catholic campus ministry of Howard University—the only area DC-area HBCU currently provided a priest-chaplain by the Archdiocese of Washington, a move made there in 2020.
Bowman is the youngest of the six African Americans on the path to sainthood, born twenty years after the death of the next most recent and having lived into the late 20th century. Her cause for canonization was opened in 2018, and Williams serves as a member of the national guild.
Her work spanned the arenas of theology, liturgy, history, and education, and focused on the importance of Black pride and inculturation in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. She also worked against racism and the neglect of African Americans in the Church.
Her journey into the Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration began at the age of 15 in 1953. She later attained a Masters in English from CUA in 1969 and a PhD in the same field three years later, and taught elementary school in the sisters’ home city of La Crosse, Wisconsin and later in her native Mississippi.
She also became a professor at the sisters’ Viterbo College in La Crosse, as well as at CUA and Xavier University of Louisiana—where she was an early faculty member in the Institute for Black Catholic Studies.
Williams, a 2015 graduate of the IBCS, presently serves as pastor of Resurrection Catholic Church in Montgomery, Alabama, the church where he spent many years in his youth before entering the religious congregation which oversees it.
He is now an adjunct professor at the IBCS, and oversees Resurrection Catholic Missions of the South, which includes his parish as well as a school and outreach programs for the poor, elderly, and disabled.
Williams is also an instructor at his alma mater, the Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, Missouri, where he co-taught a course on anti-racist preaching last summer.
This week’s event on Bowman is said to be the result of a request from CUA president John Garvey, who personally asked that Howard students take part. In recent years, he has cooperated with preliminary efforts to achieve equity at the historic university, founded in 1887 as a rare integrated Catholic institution in the United States.
The school later underwent a period of segregation during the Jim Crow era, from 1914 to the 1940s, and has struggled to fully acknowledge this history over the years. Last year, CUA began displaying a signposted Black history tour on campus which includes this history—but only for a period of several weeks preceding and during Black History Month.
University administrators also spearheaded a recent study of racial equality on the campus, naming the project after Bowman herself, perhaps the university’s most famous Black alumnus. The report was released in December 2021.
Almost on cue, the university was struck with controversy as an icon displayed in its law school—of a Black Madonna and Christ, evoking the image of a deceased George Floyd lying in her arms—was stolen from the university property that same month.
A replacement image was also stolen just weeks later, causing the university to reverse its previous defense of the image and its place on campus. No suspects have been announced by the university.
This week’s event, scheduled long before the thefts took place, may serve as an avenue for the university to deal more fully with the state of inclusion and acceptance on campus. The Bowman Report noted that only 8% of CUA students are Black and just 3% of its full-time faculty. (Even fewer are specifically African-American.)
Bowman herself spoke out repeatedly on such issues during her life, including before the US Catholic Conference of Bishops themselves at their annual meeting in 1989, just 9 months before her death.
The video recording of her message was posted on the USCCB’s YouTube channel in summer 2016 but kept on private for unknown reasons, reaching only ~1,700 views in the next 3 and a half years. (Following a request, it was made public in November 2020 and has reached nearly 17,000 views in the 15 months since.)
Williams’ address this week at the nation’s sole USCCB-run university will offer a chance for even more exposure to her words and action, with his personal knowledge of her life and ministry.
The event is scheduled to take place at 2pm ET in the school’s Pryzbyla Center.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).