Q & A with Sr. Roberta Fulton, sharing the legacy of Sr. Thea Bowman

Sister of St. Mary of Namur Roberta Fulton, left, with a student of St. Martin de Porres Catholic School in Columbia, South Carolina. (Provided photo)

Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration Thea Bowman never lived in Texas, but in the 1980s, she made several visits to the predominantly black Holy Cross parish in southern Dallas. Bowman made a lasting impact on the parish — so much so that the parish hall was named after her. And October 15, Holy Cross parishioners will come together for a celebration of Bowman's life.

The celebration will include storytelling, songs and a special Mass setting composed by Aaron Mathews, the director of liturgical music at St. Charles Parish in Hartland, Wisconsin. Two of Bowman's friends — Daughter of the Heart of Mary Sr. Anita Baird and Sister of St. Mary of Namur Roberta Fulton— will speak at the celebration.

Fulton, who is the principal of St. Martin de Porres Catholic School in Columbia, South Carolina, spoke with Global Sisters Report about Bowman and the importance her legacy has for the Catholic church.

GSR: Why are you participating in this event?

Fulton: Well, I think for several reasons. No. 1, I knew Sr. Thea Bowman. I knew her for quite a period of time. She was a good friend, and she was a member of the National Black Sisters Conference, where I am also a member. I loved her. I loved who she was, what she stood for and who she worked among — just her lively spirit and her interest in the African-American community, her interest in our people and, as she said, 'my people.' That's the first reason.

Also, I know [event organizer] Sr. Patricia Ridgley. She and I worked for several years in Fort Worth, Texas, at Our Mother of Mercy school. Sr. Patricia Ridgley is a member of my community, Sisters of St. Mary Namur.

I was so pleased when I got the first message announcing that Holy Cross was wanting to have a program of this depth, and the effort they have put into a day set aside as Sister Thea's day. It just made me feel so blessed to have been asked to be part of such a day. As an African-American sister — a Catholic nun — in these days, I'm always glad to be of help in any little way that I can be of help or to try to inspire someone along the way. And I certainly think this program is going to do that, and it's a big deal.

What will you speak about?

[Ridgley] asked me to address the youth — having the parish youth come to know more about Sister Thea, because they have already been working with the young people there at Holy Cross with what Sister Thea did, her life, and celebrating her anniversary of her death. So I will talk with the young people about Sister Thea.

I will talk about how she loved young people. I will talk about her singing. Singing was the way she communicated with people, and she did the old-time singing, you know? I will tell them little stories about when I knew her and give them some facts about her life. She was a sister, and you don't see that many African-American sisters today. And about her history — how she was a convert, and how God calls people to serve in different ways.

Sr. Thea Bowman, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, in front of artwork by Br. Michael O'Neill McGrath, "This Little Light of Mine." (Photo credit: FSPA Archives, La Crosse, Wisconsin)

Why do you think Thea Bowman's legacy is important today? Why should children learn about her?

I was thinking the other day about memories. Memories tell the story. She was constantly in the forefront of our saying that African-Americans had gifts to bring to the Catholic church, and that we needed to be out there helping people learn about us — that we are, and from the beginning were, black and Catholic.

And that means we come to the church with who we are. We bring our whole history, our traditions, and our experience. We bring our African-American songs and dance and whatever. Our spirit is fired up, as they say, with the spirit of God's love. More than ever, we need that today in our church and our communities.

Why is that needed today more than ever?

We sometimes hear so many sad stories. You hear of young people hurting young people, of young people not having a sense of purpose or young people not having a sense of 'Yes, life is worth living. It is OK to be proud, it is OK to stand up for what's right.' That's why it's more important than ever. Sister Thea wanted us to be inspired by people.

Black history wasn't as prominent [in the '70s and '80s] as it is today. She wanted us to know our history. She wanted us to be familiar with all of those African-Americans who had gone ahead of us and paved a way, especially the saints we have up for canonization: Mother [Mary] Lange, Pierre Toussaint, Augustus Tolton, Henriette DeLille. And the list goes on and on. She wanted our young people — and people everywhere — to know about our history. That's important today.

We're focused on violence. We're focused on young people not having any contribution to make. I don't think that's true. I think they have a lot of contribution to make, and we have to help direct it. And Catholic schools did that in the past. Catholic schools are still trying to do that in the present, and we hope we will reach out into the future and still be a voice out there, saying, 'Yes, it is important to know where you come from, where you are going and to have that deep-rooted faith that our ancestors had.'

We've come a mighty long ways and have a mighty long ways to go. I am so proud that Holy Cross had the vision to put something of this magnitude together. I'm pleased that there are people who are looking beyond the violence, beyond the despair and seeing that there is hope. There is joy. There is love. There is life anew, and we have to be running toward that vision.

[Dawn Araujo-Hawkins is Global Sisters Report staff writer based in Kansas City, Missouri. Her email address is daraujo@ncronline.org. Follow her on Twitter: @dawn_cherie.]