Two Catholic women remembered for their exemplary contributions to society
By Claudia Mathis
SUN staff writer
From the beginning of church history, women have been active in its life and mission, accomplishing works of considerable value. Many women accompanied Jesus in his ministry, assisted the Apostles and were present at the foot of the cross. They also assisted at the burial of Christ, received and transmitted the message of Resurrection on Easter morning and prayed with the Apostles in the Cenacle awaiting Pentecost.
Two Catholic heroines in particular, Sister Mary Vera Blank, CSJ, and Sister Thea Bowman, FSPA, sacrificed all to follow Jesus and to dedicate themselves to prayer and to the service of the poor, the sick, the illiterate, the young and the elderly.
Sister Vera, as a Sister of St. Joseph, demonstrated great humility, gentleness and a humanitarian spirit. She is remembered for spearheading the effort to establish Vera House in Syracuse, an emergency shelter for women in crisis, in 1977. Sister Vera realized the need for shelter for women who were victims of domestic violence when she served as a school social worker at St. Lucy’s Parish in Syracuse. She, along with then Sister Mary Jo Coleman, CSJ, and Sister Gloria DeCotis, CSJ, formed an ad hoc committee to drum up support for the project. They sent a proposal to the Sisters of St. Joseph and the Diocese of Syracuse. Sister Vera spoke before many groups and organizations to foster an interest and to help finance the project.
Coleman remembered the kindness that Sister Vera extended to others. “She was inclusive — everyone counted, as far as she was concerned,” said Coleman. “She set a new precedent for working with people in the inner city.”
After receiving $9,500 from the Sisters of St. Joseph and $7,000 from the Syracuse Diocese, a board of directors was established. Vera House, then located on South Avenue in Syracuse, opened to admit its first woman on July 19, 1977, the feast day of St. Vincent de Paul.
On Jan. 1, 2005, Rape Crisis Center and Vera House merged their programs and staff into one agency, Vera House, Inc. Vera House’s original mission has expanded into a wide range of domestic violence services including outreach and advocacy, domestic violence education programming, children’s counseling, the Syracuse Area Domestic and Sexual Violence Coalition and a domestic violence education program for male perpetrators of violence.
Sister Vera was born in Albany on April 30, 1899. Her parents were Adam Blank, a native of Albany, and Margaret O’Gorman of County Clare, Ireland. She completed her elementary school education at Our Lady of Angels School in Albany and her high school education at Albany High School and Cathedral Academy in Albany. Sister Vera attended St. Joseph‘s Seminary in Troy and received her bachelor’s degree from St. Rose in Albany and her master’s degree in social work from Catholic University in Washington, D.C.
Sister Vera professed her vows on Aug. 15, 1919, and served as a teacher and social worker in the Syracuse and Albany Dioceses. She taught fourth grade at St. Mary School in Oswego from 1919 to 1922, when she transferred to St. Brigid School in Watervliet to teach sixth grade for three years. After that, Sister Vera taught seventh grade at St. John School in Oswego and at St. Joseph School in Troy. She taught the longest at Catholic Central High School in Troy. She spent six years there, teaching algebra and general science. Sister Vera went on to become principal at St. John the Baptist in Syracuse.
Sister Vera’s teaching mission took a different direction when she had almost completed her master’s degree at Catholic University. Her provincial superior told her to enroll in the School of Social Work. While working on her M.S.S.W., Sister Vera completed her field work at the Catholic Charities’ children’s division in Baltimore, Md., and at the Catholic Charities’ family division in Washington, D.C. She also worked at the Foundling Institute in New York City in all phases of social work.
Sister Vera spent one month at St. Joseph’s Maternity Hospital in Troy and in Rutland and Bennington, Vt. gathering data for her dissertation, “The Unmarried Mother and Her Child.”
After the completion of her M.S.S.W. degree, Sister Vera spent the next three years teaching biology and sociology at the College of St. Rose.
The next 11 years were spent serving as assistant superintendent at St. Mary’s Home in Binghamton and then for another 11 years at St. Joseph’s Infant Home in Troy in the same capacity.
In 1965, Sister Vera was asked to serve at St. Lucy’s School in Syracuse. St. Lucy’s had been selected for specialized services under the Crusade for Opportunity program and they needed a social worker.
In September 1966, at the suggestion of Father John Burke, a parish social work program was started as a pilot experiment, the first one in the Syracuse Diocese. Its main objective was to care for the poor and those in need.
Sister Vera then began to work towards the establishment of a settlement house, which later became Vincent House. There, women were taught how to cook and sew, and if necessary, received counseling. It was during the time that Sister Vera worked in St. Lucy’s Parish that she often came in contact with women and their children who were looking for a place to stay for the night. They were usually the victims of domestic violence. It was at that time that Sister Vera knew she wanted to establish a shelter for victims of abuse.
Sally Berry, senior vice president at Loretto, worked with Sister Vera in the late 1970‘s when Berry served as executive director at Vera House. Berry remembered Sister Vera’s sustained commitment to the mission of Vera House. “Sister was a member of the board and supported the mission with a lot of fundraisers,” said Berry. “She was hard to say ‘no’ to. She had a magical way of raising funds — she had a good network of people to rely on. She was a real leader. She was somebody that people followed and she had a plan of action. She attracted others to her cause.”
Sister Vera died in 1995 at 96 years old.
Sister Thea Bowman, FSPA, who has been called Mother Teresa with soul, was a charismatic evangelist who became nationally recognized for introducing African-American culture, song and ritual into Catholic liturgy.
Sister Thea, the granddaughter of a slave, was born in Yazoo City, Miss. on Dec. 29, 1937. Her parents named her Bertha. Soon after she was born, the family moved to Canton, Miss. Her father was a physician and her mother a teacher. Her parents, who were unhappy with the quality of the education offered in the public schools in the Mississippi Delta and who highly valued education, sent her to the Holy Child Jesus School staffed by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.
Sister Thea was baptized Episcopalian and raised Methodist, but because of the strong influence of the sisters, became a Catholic in 1947. At 15, she entered St. Rose Convent in LaCrosse, Wis., as a first step toward becoming a Franciscan nun, taking the name Thea, which means “of God.” She was the first and only black person at the convent. Sister Thea professed her vows in 1958.
After earning her bachelor’s degree at Viterbo College in La Crosse, Wis., in 1965, Sister Thea taught at Blessed Sacrament School in the same city and at Holy Child Jesus High School in Canton, Miss. She received her master’s and doctoral degrees from Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., then returned to La Crosse to teach English at Viterbo from 1972 to 1978. She served as director of the Office of Intercultural Awareness for the Diocese of Jackson for the next 10 years. In this position, Sister Thea worked with children to help them grow in awareness of their gifts and of their cultural heritage through song, dance, poetry and drama.
Sister Thea also taught at the Catholic University of America and the Institute of Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans, La., which she helped to establish.
Sister Thea made more than 100 public appearances each year, giving lectures, recitals, short courses, workshops and conference presentations, advocating intercultural awareness. Her presentations combined singing, Gospel preaching, prayer and storytelling, and were designed to break down racial and cultural barriers.
Sister Thea worked to empower the laity. As she stated in her book, Sister Thea Bowman, Shooting Star: Selected Writings and Speeches, “I think one difference between me and some other people is that I’m content to do my little bit. Sometimes people think they have to do big things in order to make change, but if each one of us would light a candle we’d have a tremendous light.”
Before she died of cancer at 52 in 1990, her work landed her a spot on CBS Television’s “60 Minutes.” Harry Belefonte met her in Mississippi in 1989 in hopes of making a movie about her life. Novelist Margaret Walker Alexander started but never finished a biography of Sister Thea.
Sister Vera and Sister Thea were generous, courageous women who became vehicles for change and good within the church and the secular world.