Bill Williams

Michael O’Neill McGrath, O.S.F.S., had never heard of the Catholic nun and gospel singer Thea Bowman while she was alive, but once he discovered her, as we learn in this splendid short memoir, she transformed his life.

“I like to tell folks that I have a little black nun inside of me,” McGrath writes. “She’s my muse, my spiritual friend and inspiration.”

McGrath was caring for his dying father when he read a magazine interview recorded shortly before Bowman died in 1990 of breast cancer. He was immediately captivated by “her charm and the eloquence of her words.” He later watched a video about Bowman that stimulated his artistic bent and led to an outpouring of modernistic paintings, some of which grace the pages of this beautifully produced book.

Sister Bowman grew up in segregated Mississippi in the 1940s. After the local Catholic diocese opened a mission in her town, she asked to be baptized and became a Catholic at age 10. Later, under the influence of four white Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, who had come from Wisconsin to open a Catholic school, she decided to become a nun, taking the name Sister Thea, which means “of God.”

She eventually obtained a doctorate from The Catholic University of America, taught college and became a popular speaker, giving more than 100 presentations a year in America and Africa. She also inspired people with her renditions of popular slave spirituals.

“When Thea got the crowds on their feet, moving, swaying, leading them in song, she wasn’t merely entertaining them, she was transforming them, moving their hearts and filling their tired, restless spirits with the love of God,” writes McGrath, who lives in Philadelphia, where he pursues his career as an artist and a member of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales.

Woven into this graceful account is the cold reality of life in the Jim Crow South, which infected the Catholic Church, as it did the rest of society. Catholic churches had “colored only” pews, as well as separate sections in the rear where African-Americans could receive Communion “far from the altar rail where whites received.”

After Bowman was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 47, she cut back her speaking schedule but not her determination. “I’m going to live ’til I die” became her credo.

The year before she died, Bowman delivered a rousing speech from her wheelchair at the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on the topic “To Be Black and Catholic.” She “dazzled and captivated” the bishops and ended with a poignant rendition of “We Shall Overcome,” with the bishops on their feet singing with her.

Perhaps the book’s most moving story, though, involves an incident just weeks before Bowman died.

She was bedridden and clinging to life when 40 members of the Jubilee Singers, a group she had directed, crammed into the living room of her Mississippi home to sing gospel songs. During an emotional goodbye, the choir director mentioned that the group planned to stop at the local McDonald’s. They were seated for lunch when they noticed a car pull into the parking lot, with a frail Sister Bowman in the back seat. The group left the restaurant, surrounded the car and sang “Deep River,” one of her favorite spirituals.

This Little Light should appeal to all age groups, starting with students in the middle grades. Parents might profitably read it aloud to their children, giving families a chance to discuss the spiritual and societal issues presented in the life of an extraordinary woman.

Many readers probably will be discovering Sister Bowman for the first time. One hopes that McGrath or another author will eventually write a fuller biography of this inspiring icon. Such an account might look deeper into the racism that enveloped society during Sister Bowman’s formative years, and how she was able to respond with compassion, forgiveness and peace instead of succumbing to hatred or violence.

From the archives, a remembrance of Sister Thea Bowman from 1990.

Bill Williams is a freelance writer in West Hartford, Conn., and former editorial writer for The Hartford Courant. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.