20th annual memorial service at Sister Thea’s gravesite held March 30
by Charlene Smith, FSPA
Our Delta flight to Memphis, lighted by a full pink egg moon, landed Monday evening. The next morning—March 30, the 20th anniversary of Sister Thea Bowman’s homegoing—we drove to historic Elmwood Cemetery at Dudley Street and crossed over Morgan Entry Bridge onto Church Lane. We stopped at an audio tour marker and ascended the slope to her grave. Pear trees and pink tulip magnolias were in full blossom. A golden sun glinted on Thea’s white marble headstone with the inscription “She tried.”
Already assembled were third to eighth grade students from Holy Names Catholic School. Girls clad in yellow or white blouses with green, red and white plaid uniforms, boys in white or yellow shirts and khaki trousers formed a semi-circle fronting the grave. A large grapevine wreath festooned with daisies, yellow, salmon and orange roses, mums, purple blooms and green lotus-like buds was placed by the tomb and beckoned celebration. From the wreath, lavender and rose ribbons scribed in gold letters, Sister Thea Forever Loved, streamed in the soft breeze. Not having known Thea, the children were quiet and curious while prepping music with their principal, Sister of the Blessed Sacrament Donna Banfield. Local friends of Thea and others from Mississippi, Nebraska, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin milled about, sharing stories of encounters with their remarkable friend. Among the adults were three FSPAs—Sisters Jean Kasparbauer, Dorothy Ann Kundinger and me—one brother, six or seven priests and numerous laity.
Exactly at noon, Redemptorist Maurice J. Nutt, pastor of Holy Names of Jesus and Mary Catholic Church, devoted friend of Thea, anchored the procession up from Church Lane to Thea’s grave. Incense wafting from an African bowl, music and a passing train whistle harmonized with He Has Done Great Things for Me. Father Maurice welcomed the gathering.
After Sister Dorothy Ann Kundinger read from Isaiah 49:1-6, “a light to the nations” and the Gospel from John 13:21-38, “before the cock crows,” Father Maurice, who succeeded Thea in teaching preaching at the Institute for Black Catholic Studies, Xavier University, New Orleans, delivered a lively, inspirational homily about Thea, who knew who she was and whose she was. Looking toward her grave he declared, “Thea, you not only tried, you succeeded!”
Led by the children singing Amazing Grace, all processed a hundred feet up a gentle incline to a rough granite stone about four and a half feet high. With “O Freedom” chiseled in italics, it signals the unmarked graves of over 300 slaves from Africa buried there from 1852 to 1865. A large green-leafed oak tree towered in the background. The vivid orange, purple and green kente cloth which covered Thea’s coffin at her funeral now draped the granite “altar.” From Mississippi, Sister Dorothy Ann brought the candle that was in Thea’s room the morning she died. It was the last light Thea saw. Today it was our altar candle.
After Communion and a spontaneous reflection about “we are all brothers and sisters,” the final blessing sent us on our way. Many of us lingered, tracing our fingers over the craggy granite and then touching Thea’s smooth stone. We were blessed to have been in a holy place praising and celebrating Thea Bowman, FSPA (1937-1990).
Later that evening, out-of-town guests and parish friends of Thea were treated with abundant, exquisite southern hospitality at the Holy Names rectory. With an expert wait staff trio we enjoyed delicious food (including plump gulf shrimp, cornmeal dressing, pomegranate tea, wine, cream cheese pound cake, seasonal fruits and berries) prepared by Father Maurice’s friend, stimulating conversation and burgeoning wonderful friendships. The night ended with a visit to Holy Names Church where Thea’s photo holds a prominent place.
And she was smiling, floating among us the entire day!