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Old Time Religion -- Meeting the woman who could become St. Thea of Mississippi

Old Time Religion -- Meeting the woman who could become St. Thea of Mississippi

The whispers began before Sister Thea Bowman reached Colorado for one of the final mission trips she would make before dying in 1990 at the age of 52.

The only African-American in the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, Bowman was a charismatic teacher, singer and evangelist and her ministry continued after cancer put her in a wheel chair.

Behind the scenes, folks at Our Queen of Peace parish near Denver were asking this question: Would this woman someday be hailed as St. Thea of Mississippi?

After her arrival, a local priest watched as Sister Thea led an interracial youth choir, rehearsing a gospel hymn, "Give Me That Old Time Religion," as well as the children's song she included in each service -- "This Little Light of Mine (I'm Gonna Let It Shine)."

Yes, people were talking about Sister Thea and sainthood, said Father William Breslin, pastor of this Aurora parish in 1989.

"Sometimes you have that sneaking suspicion," he said. "It's neat to be able to meet a person and experience. … It's neat to be able to put your finger on that special quality we can only call 'holiness.' "

Three decades later the U.S. Catholic bishops paused in Baltimore for a "canonical consultation," considering requests for a Vatican tribunal to begin investigating whether to declare Sister Thea a saint. On Nov. 14 the bishops said, "yes."

"The faithful in, and well beyond, the Diocese of Jackson" have made this request, Bishop Joseph Kopacz told the bishops. "Well before I arrived in Jackson" in 2014, "the requests were coming in. …The church embraced Sister Thea from her early years, but there were times when she felt like a motherless child."

During her 1989 "Sharing the Good News" mission -- which I covered for The Rocky Mountain News -- Sister Thea smiled, but shook her head, when asked about the whispers. She would talk about the word "saint," as long as she could define the term.

"People who really know me, they know all about my struggles," said an exhausted Bowman, leaning on the arm of her wheelchair after one service.

"You see, I'm black," she added, with a quiet laugh. "I guess the word 'saint' has a different meaning for me. I was raised in a community where … we were always saying things like, 'The saints would be coming in to church today' or 'The saints will really be dancing and singing this Sunday.' "

Fires raging in American church: Catholics face hard choices after McCarrick scandal

Fires raging in American church: Catholics face hard choices after McCarrick scandal

Priests know what it's like to enter the pulpit facing scriptures that appear to have been torn from the headlines.

That happened just the other day, with news that one of America's most powerful Catholics -- retired Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C. -- had been accused of the sexual abuse of boys, as well as decades of seminarians.

Days later the Sunday Mass lectionary featured the Prophet Jeremiah, speaking for Jehovah: "Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture."

That reminded Father John Hollowell of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis of even stronger words from St. John Chrysostom, the early church's most celebrated orator: "The road to hell is paved with the skulls of erring priests, with bishops as their signposts."

Priests who took their vows during the clergy sexual abuse scandals a decade or so ago thought that they had heard it all, said Hollowell.

Now, with hellish reports about McCarrick the "wound in the church continues to be infected and it oozes with fresh pus. … Everyone says the same stuff -- that everybody knew, and nobody knew what to do about it, and nobody knew who to tell and there's a fresh trail of people discovered to have been destroyed by his crimes and his actions," he said, in a sermon posted online.

What happens now? While many powerful voices in the American church remained silent, or offered public-relations talk, several bishops in smaller dioceses wrote urgent letters to their flocks.

Bishop Michael Olson of the Diocese of Fort Worth (.pdf here) focused on this stunning fact: One of the men accusing McCarrick of years of abuse had been the first child he baptized after his ordination as a priest.