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He was the patriarch of Black bishops

3rd December 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Fr. Jerome LeDoux
Contributing Columnist

“The sum of our years is 70,” Psalm 90:10 tells us, “and, if we are strong, 80,” and, if we go completely overboard with this thing called life, 102 and change to boot!

By sheer longevity, the Rev. Joseph Oliver Bowers, S.V.D., became Patriarch of the U.S.A., black bishops, beginning with Episcopal ordination by Francis Cardinal Spellman on April 22, 1953 in Our Lady of the Gulf Church in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Hardly imaginable, this happened 11 years before the omnibus Civil Rights Act of July 2, 1964!

Despite being that late into spring on the Gulf Coast, the previous night’s chill registered 45 degrees, and, beaten down by a strong, cold north wind, the blessed day’s mercury struggled to rise to 75 degrees. But all of it was perfect for the unique occasion, allowing the oft-racist Deep South to leap far ahead of the rest of the country in religion.

For perspective, Joseph Oliver Bowers was appointed by Pope Pius XII and received his episcopal ordination from Francis Joseph Cardinal Spellman, assisted by Bishops Richard Oliver Gerow of Natchez-Jackson and Adolph Alexander Noser, S.V.D.

African-American Joseph was not, since his native land was Massacre, Dominica where he was born on March 28, 1910. Thus, he became the first black prelate to be ordained in the United States, while the Rev. Harold Robert Perry, S.V.D., was ordained in New Orleans on January 6, 1966 as the first 20th century African-American prelate.

The son of Montague and Mary Bowers, Joseph Oliver had journeyed to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi after the sixth grade to study for the priesthood in St. Augustine Seminary. There he was ordained a priest of the Society of the Divine Word on January 22, 1939, following a two-year Novitiate (spiritual training) in Techny, Illinois, then four years of college and four years of theology at St. Augustine Major Seminary in Bay St. Louis.

Joseph’s first assignment as a priest was to serve the people of the then Gold Coast of West Africa in the Diocese of Accra in Ghana in 1939. That was to prove to be his bailiwick for most of the rest of his life. He was appointed auxiliary bishop of Accra and Titular Bishop of Cyparissia in 1952, then Bishop of Accra on January 8, 1953.

Four years into his bishopric, he founded the institute of the Sisters of the Handmaids of the Divine Redeemer (HDR) in Accra, dedicated to comforting and caring for the poor. He also founded St John’s College and Seminary, presently known as Pope John Secondary School and Junior Seminary, one of the best high schools in Ghana.

In recognition of his pioneering work in Ghana, Bishop Bowers was appointed the first bishop of the newly-created Diocese of St. John’s-Basseterre in the West Indies on January 16, 1971. The islands of Antigua-Barbuda, St. Kitts and Nevis, Montserrat, Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands were the components of the diocese.

On July 17, 1981, he retired from church office and, after some years spent in Charlestown, Nevis, returned to Dominica, where he lived in Mahaut in the care of his sister, Blossom Ann Reid. But the Sisters whose institute he had founded sought him out.

In the 1990s, the HDR Sisters, some of whom had periodically visited him in Dominica, invited him back to Ghana, where they cared for him in the town of Agomanya. Nicholas Liverpool, President of Dominica, was a guest at the celebrations there for his 100th birthday. The amazing centenarian had become an icon.

It was far more than longevity that propelled Bishop Bowers into his status as icon. Rather, it was many long-suffering years of toil in the Lord’s vineyard that got the attention of clerics and laypersons alike and endeared him to other missionaries spreading the Good News. He was a long-burning beacon of self-deprivation and giving of himself.

Finally succumbing to the incredible grind and wear of 102 years and 8 months, Bishop Bowers returned to God on November 6, 2012, at Agomanya in the Eastern Region of Ghana. He was the third-oldest Roman-Catholic bishop in the world. Together with the people of Dominica and Africa, we salute an unflinching Christian soldier who ran an epic centenarian course as in 2 Timothy 4:7-8, “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day.”

This article originally published in the December 3, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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