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Howard students celebrate new Catholic center after more than 20 years of being closed

HU Bison Catholic and other members of Howard University commemorate the legacy of Sr. Thea Bowman and their new Catholic student center.

Members of the Howard University Catholic Ministry celebrate the opening of the Sr. Thea Bowman Catholic Student Center. The new center comes after the closure of the Newman Center back in the early 1990s. (Eliana Lewis/The Hilltop)

The Howard University Catholic Ministry (HU Bison Catholic) opened an off-campus designated Catholic ministry center last week, one of the few organizations to have an official off-campus house, marking a historic achievement amongst HBCUs. 

After more than 20 years of the Catholic center’s closure, more than 50 alumni, current students, practicing members of the faith and Howard faculty joined together at 1901 3rd St. NW to celebrate its momentous establishment on Aug. 28.

Only 11 out of the 107 HBCUs in the country have a Catholic campus ministry and only six out of the 11 have a designated student center. The Sr. Thea Bowman Student Center will provide a safe space for students to study Catholicism and foster community engagement within their environment and with their peers.

“There have been many efforts over the past couple of decades to establish a Catholic center at Howard University,” Father Robert Boxie, current Catholic Chaplain at Howard, said. “Priests of the archdiocese laid faithful, many Black Catholics advocated for one for many years.”

The Sr. Thea Bowman Student Center joins the AUC’s Lyke House, Bennett College and North Carolina A&T’s Thea House, and Texas Southern University’s Newman Center as the HBCUs to offer a designated center for student Catholics.

The opening of the center is just as momentous for the members of HU Bison Catholic, the only Catholic student ministry on campus. Victoria Koffi, a senior biology major from Mountain House, California, founded the ministry when she was only a freshman.

“It’s provided a nice little community for me,” she said. “Back home faith was really a big portion of my family life, so to have something like faith connect me to others is like a family away from home.”

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The Center hosts three levels such as offices for members of the clergy, study areas and the St. Augustine Library. Father Joseph Wimmer O.S.A., a professor of religious and theological studies at Villanova University, and the Augustinians donated the books to the library to enhance students’ entry into Catholic Studies.

The St. Augustine Library is not only a study space but a quiet place for students to engage in Catholic studies. Students can finish their schoolwork, de-stress and read the Catholic Bible or any other books available. (Eliana Lewis/The Hilltop) 

Former Archbishop of Washington, D.C., Cardinal Donald Wuerl, helped raise funding for the establishment of The Center. He, along with the 1969 Howard graduate and auxiliary bishop of Washington, D.C., Bishop Roy Campbell, and the first African-American cardinal in the Catholic Church, Wilton Gregory, were in attendance the day of the opening. 

“It feels wonderful,” Campbell said. “I look at the young people coming to Howard now and what they can do. This helps them be who they are,” he said, a component Bowman advocated strongly.

The Center was renamed the Sr. Thea Bowman Catholic Student Center after the devoted African-American Catholic pioneer and educator from Mississippi, Sister Thea Bowman. Bowman was one of the founding members of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in Louisiana. Her legacy represents one of the hopeful visions of the center: to foster engagement in Catholic studies and to create a safe space for students to congregate.

Born in 1937 in Yazoo City, Mississippi, Bowman joined Catholicism around the age of eight or nine, according to the African-American biography website Her early devotion to Catholicism and “unapologetic expressions of being Black and Catholic,” according to Ali Mumbach, a sociology graduate student from Houston and assistant for the HU Bison Catholic ministry, was inspirational in naming the center.  

Bowman became a nun at the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration when she was 15 and became the first African-American woman to hold a doctorate in theology from Boston College at 52. 

“What does it mean to be Black and Catholic,” Mumbach said in a speech quoting Bowman. 

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Audience members onlook as Ali Mumbach honors and quotes Sister Thea Bowman during her speech. Mumbach is the assistant for HU Bison Catholic, thus an integral person in honoring Bowman. (Eliana Lewis/The Hilltop)

Mumbach continued with the famed quote from Bowman, “It means that I come to my Church fully functioning. That doesn’t frighten you, does it? I come to my Church fully functioning. I bring myself; my Black self, all that I am, all that I have, all that I hope to become.”

This artwork of Sister Thea Bowman called “Gladiolus in The Valley” was created by artist Vernon Adams. Adam specializes in Black Catholic art, sculpting, and family portraits. More of his work can be viewed at (Eliana Lewis/The Hilltop)

According to Boxie, the original Catholic student center at Howard, the Newman Center, closed in the early ‘90s. Howard University 1975 graduate, Ron Jackson, called the catholic center his home. Located on 1st and Bryant streets Northwest, the center was meant for students non-Catholic and Catholic to congregate.

“My friends from the Newman Center lasted longer than any of my friends from classes,” Jackson said. “We always had food and had a great time…When you couldn’t go home for the holidays you basically stayed there.”

Boxie hopes that what the Newman Center was for students in the past will be reflected in the Sr. Thea Bowman Catholic Student Center. 

“We have a thriving Catholic ministry at Howard and all students are welcome to join our community, to fellowship with us,” he said. He hopes that students will come to know “it’s cool to be Black and Catholic.”

Copy edited by Diamond Hamm


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