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Speaker focuses on life of nun considered for sainthood

Feb. 28, 2011 @ 12:00 AM

With Black History Month waning, it only seemed right on the last Sunday of the month that St. Peter Claver Catholic Church would shine a light on the glorious life of Sister Thea Bowman.

Back in a time when it didn't seem so, she made it more than OK to be black and Catholic.

Bowman, who died of bone cancer in 1990, was a Mississippi-born nun who was a passionate author, singer, Civil Rights leader and woman of faith. She was famous for her inspirational talks, including appearances on such TV shows as CBS's "60 Minutes."

On Sunday, St. Peter Claver welcomed Philly-based artist, writer and speaker Michael "Mickey" O'Neill McGrath to share her legacy.

McGrath said his own life was changed by Bowman. When he was taking care of his dying father, McGrath picked up a magazine on his dad's nightstand and read Bowman's last interview as she was dying of bone cancer and in which she talked about the "the joy of going home."

"I would look up and see my dad, and it gave me a lot of hope that we could get through it," McGrath said.

That newfound hope poured out of his paintbrushes as he turned out nine new paintings in one week in a style he'd never done before.

"One thing led to another, and 15 years later this is probably the 60th presentation I've done about her," said McGrath, who was signing copies Sunday of his book, "This Little Light: Lessons in Living From Sister Thea Bowman."

The church celebrated with a program geared around Bowman. Church member and quilter Dolores Johnson created three hand-made tapestries, including a beautifully detailed homage to McGrath's painting "We Shall Overcome" as an altar cloth.

The church welcomed McGrath with a dinner and reception before his presentation.

Church member Linda Zima said she'd seen McGrath in Charleston a while back and knew the Huntington congregation would have its collective soul fed on the paintings of McGrath and teachings of Bowman.

"It seemed like something this particular church community might like to hear and might need to hear," Zima said. "She was involved in women's rights and had a very unique life as an African-American woman from the South who joined a convent in the North... and the timing couldn't be better as we are exiting Black History Month and entering Women's History Month."

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