"And she knew that we were all not a melting pot. She was never very interested in that particular metaphor. She was a whole lot more interested in saying that we are more like a salad," Smith continued. "So when you are a salad, you don't lose your characteristics, you remain individuals. And the whole point is to love one another. And that's what she did."
As the civil rights movement grew in the years that followed, Bowman worked to advance racial justice. She helped establish the National Black Sisters Conference and advocated for an increased representation of American-American people in Church leadership. She called for more encounters between white and non-white Catholics, and for a welcoming of music from different cultural backgrounds.
Bowman became a noted public speaker, and traveled around the country, talking about race and the Catholic faith. She continued to travel and teach even after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 1984, even landing an interview with 60 Minutes.
In 1989, Bowman delivered what would become a famous speech at the spring meeting of the U.S. bishops' conference.
"What does it mean to be black and Catholic?," asked Sr. Thea. "It means that I bring myself, my black self."
"I bring my whole history, my traditions, my experience, my culture, my African-American song and dance and gesture and movement and teaching and preaching and healing and responsibility as gift to the Church."
Bowman had a profound impact on the bishops, and on many other people who heard her words.
"When that speech was over, they wheeled her off the podium and out into a hall. And one by one, the bishops came to her and knelt before her, in her wheelchair, and asked for her blessing. That's how much they thought about her," Smith said.
Bowman died March 30, 1990. Her canonization cause was opened by the Diocese of Jackson in 2018.
Smith said Bowman's impact lives on after her death, with schools named after the sister, events held in her memory, memorials established in her honor, and at least 40 books mentioning her story and influence.
Smith said Bowman would likely find hope in the recent protests demanding racial equality and justice in the wake of George Floyd's death.
(Story continues below)
Subscribe to our daily newsletter
At Catholic News Agency, our team is committed to reporting the truth with courage, integrity, and fidelity to our faith. We provide news about the Church and the world, as seen through the teachings of the Catholic Church. When you subscribe to the CNA UPDATE, we'll send you a daily email with links to the news you need and, occasionally, breaking news.
As part of this free service you may receive occasional offers from us at EWTN News and EWTN. We won't rent or sell your information, and you can unsubscribe at any time.
"Right now this is a time when we're learning. I think the people in the United States are learning a whole lot more about our history, how we were terrible to the Native Americans and how we were terrible to the African Americans, and so we're learning history," she said. "Thea knew all of that and she let it be known that she knew that."
"I'm sure she's watching what's going on in the United States. And I think she's cheering for the African Americans and all of the people who have been subjected to pain and injustice," Smith continued. "She was very much concerned that people be treated fairly, be treated as children of God. So she'd be happy with what's going on."