Sr. Elizabeth Thoman, media literacy leader, dies at age 73

Sr. Elizabeth Thoman, a member of the Congregation of the Humility of Mary, in 2006 in Washington. Thoman died Dec. 22 at age 73 at Bishop Drumm Retirement Center in Johnston, Iowa. (CNS / Bob Roller)

Sr. Elizabeth Thoman, a member of the Congregation of the Humility of Mary and a longtime media literacy leader, died December 22 at Bishop Drumm Retirement Center in Johnston. She was 73.

A funeral Mass was celebrated December 28 at the retirement center's Our Lady of Peace Chapel followed by burial at Mount Calvary Cemetery in Dubuque.

Thoman was born in June 18, 1943, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to John and Gertrude Thoman. She grew up in Nashville, Tennessee. She entered the Congregation of the Humility of Mary in 1964 and professed her final vows in 1966. She earned a bachelor's degree from Marycrest College in Davenport, Iowa. The now-closed school was operated by her religious congregation.

She earned master's degrees from the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communications in Los Angeles and from the now-closed Immaculate Heart College, also in Los Angeles. 

She spent three decades advocating for media literacy education, starting with her initial work teaching high school English in Marshalltown, Iowa, from 1967 to 1969. There, she developed an interest in communication education. From 1970 to 1975, she worked as staff photographer for the Franciscan Communications Center, where she helped make short films designed to promote classroom discussion in religious education.

Thoman founded and led the National Sisters Communications Service in Los Angeles, which provided professional communication resources for communities of women religious nationwide. Through this work she met Norman Lear, a television producer who created "All in the Family," who sought her advice on a television show that would feature the changing roles of Catholic women religious.

In 1977, she founded Media & Values magazine, which examined war, gender stereotypes and racism in the media; media regulation; children and media; and more. As circulation reached 10,000, in 1989, she created the Center for Media Literacy for creating curriculum materials designed to help students of all ages develop critical thinking skills in response to violence in media and other issues.

Known as an articulate and passionate speaker, Thoman testified before Congress and was one of 50 media and educational leaders in the United States invited by President Bill Clinton to a White House summit on children's television in 1996. She was a keynote speaker on media issues for several conferences and received a number of awards and recognition for her leading role in media literacy education.

When she retired, she continued to develop her skills as a professional photographer by establishing Healing Petals, a collection of unique photographs to stimulate meditation, reflection and prayer. In 2010, St. Thomas Hospital in Nashville commissioned a collection of her photographs to be installed in each of nearly 300 patient rooms.

In a 2006 interview with Catholic News Service, just before retiring, Thoman said her work developed from analyzing media to providing teaching tools about it and then developing more inquiry.

Not that long ago, she said, people had relatively few sources for research on the media.

"Now you've got the whole world [for] an inquiry," she added." You hit a button and you've got the Internet. It's all there. The inquiry can be deeper and richer because of technology."

Thomas is survived by brothers James, Lawrence and John Jr., sisters Patricia Young and Mary Lynn Thoman, as well as nieces, nephews and members of her religious community. Her parents preceded her in death.

Related - Read an appreciation of Sr. Elizabeth Thoman by Sr. Rose Pacatte.