Watching the outbreaks of violence centered around the last couple of years’ racial tensions in America, Sister Judith Zielinski, the Director of Faith and Values Programming at New Group Media, a media company based out of South Bend, found herself wondering what was next. Sister Judith said that the experience was “really profound, it really touched me.” As she reflected, she thought to herself, “I am a writer, a storyteller. What can we do next? Thea Bowman immediately came to the forefront.” Thus was born “Going Home Like a Shooting Star: Thea Bowman’s Journey to Sainthood,” a documentary on the Black Catholic religious sister who passed away in 1990. Her cause for canonization is currently open.
The company has already produced other documentaries on prominent American Catholics, so creating one on Sister Thea Bowman made sense. The film covers Sister Thea’s life and path to sainthood through both interviews and extensive footage and photos of her. Sister Judith said she felt it was very important to interview people who actually knew Sister Thea when she was alive, and so they were able to go to all the places of significance for her and conduct those interviews. Sister Judith noted that it was truly amazing to be able to interview childhood friends of Sister Thea’s who remembered playing with dolls with her on her family’s front porch.
Sister Thea was born in Yazoo City, Mississippi, in 1937, with the given name Bertha Elizabeth. Bishop Joseph R. Kopacz, Bishop of the Diocese of Jackson, was the one to initiate her cause for sainthood in 2019. Sister Judith contacted Bishop Kopacz, who agreed to come onboard as the Executive Producer for the documentary.
Sister Thea’s family moved to Canton, Mississippi, shortly after she was born. When she was nine years old, she became Catholic and received her First Communion. When she was 12 years old, she was enrolled at Holy Child Jesus School, a school run by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. She fell in love with the order and at the age of 15 told her parents that she wanted to join the Franciscans, which they were resistant to initially. She staged a hunger strike in order to convey her deep desire, and her parents relented. Sister Thea moved to La Crosse, Wisconsin, where she became the first African American member of her religious community. At her profession, she took the name Sister Mary Thea, in honor of her father, Theon. Sister Thea became a teacher for people of all ages. She earned her doctorate from Catholic University of America and went on to become a college professor of English and linguistics.
During the 1960s, Sister Thea went through a time of spiritual and cultural reawakening. She became motivated to share the beauty and depth of her African-American culture and spirituality. Sister Thea began to travel throughout the country as an evangelizer, teacher, writer, and singer.
Larry Bilinski, the Post-Production Director and Editor of the documentary said, “Had she not become a Catholic nun, she probably could have been a Broadway performer.
“She had an amazing singing voice which she loved to share. She could be the most intense and engaging speaker but often laced her talks with a delightful and, dare I say, an almost wicked sense of humor. She was a natural performer who engaged intimately with her audience. It’s easy to see why she was such a beloved speaker, and how she was able to touch so many lives.”
In 1978, Sister Thea returned to Canton to help care for her aging parents. She was appointed to direct the Office of Intercultural Affairs for the Diocese of Jackson. In 1984, both of her parents died and she was diagnosed with breast cancer. In 1989, she was invited to speak to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops at their annual meeting on the topic of racial inclusivity and inter-cultural respect.
This is a topic that is very relevant today. Sister Judith said, “I wanted to connect Thea’s message to the issue of systemic racism today. We are so polarized and so fearful and so worried about people who are not ‘our tribe.’ I am hoping this spurs some energy in the Church to speak out more about racism.” Sister Judith continued by saying how Sister Thea “was talking about the challenge of the Gospel to love each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. This has everything to do with us and what’s going on today.”
Marie Smith, a parishioner at St. Joseph Church in Mishawaka, said she was excited to see the documentary and shared, “Sister Bowman made it her mission to seek peace and justice for all, and she wanted to help break down racial and cultural barriers. These causes are close to my heart as well. And as a teacher, I did my best to show my students that we are all children of God and hold dignity, no matter our race or culture. It will be good to have a saint who looks like me, and who can relate to my struggles.”
She had first been introduced to Sister Thea when she was in college and now, “I cannot wait for the day when we can officially say ‘St. Thea Bowman, pray for us.’”
“Going Home Like a Shooting Star” will air on ABC stations nationwide beginning in October. Check local listings for dates and times.
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