Monday, April 5, 2010

The Catholic Community celebrates the 100th birthday of Bishop Joseph Oliver Bowers of Dominica

Thomson Fontaine

The Catholic Community in Accra and around the world has set aside Easter Monday, April 5, 2010 to celebrate the 100 years of life of Bishop Joseph O. Bowers S.V.D.

Bishop Bowers was born in humble circumstances in Massacre Dominica, on March 28, 1910 to Sheriff Montague Bowers (originally from Antigua) and his wife Mary Bowers. His father was for many years head teacher of the Massacre Government Primary School, and organist at the St. Ann's Roman Catholic parish church.
Bishop Joseph Oliver Bowers
In 1953 Bishop Bowers was the first black bishop ordained in the United States and today no other bishop alive has served as long as he has.

Today after being a priest for 71 years and a bishop for 57 years, he has the distinction as the third oldest bishop in the world and the longest serving bishop.

The young Bowers felt God’s call to service at a very early age, and upon graduating from the Dominica Grammar School he moved to the United States to attend St. Augustine Seminary, in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi where he studied for the priesthood.

He was ordained a priest on January 22, 1939 and shortly thereafter he left for Ghana, at the time the country was called the Gold Coast. Upon his arrival in Ghana he immediately set about the task of building up the church’s following in that country.

Bishop Bowers also reached out to another Dominican who was serving as a top lawyer in that country at the time George Christian James.

In a letter made public by Prof. Margaret Rouse-Jones and Estelle Appiah, of Ghana and granddaughter of Christian, the young priest at the time wrote to the ailing George James Christian.

“Dear Mr. Christian,

I am taking the liberty of sending you an Easter Card. Though I suppose you will not remember me, I have had the pleasure of meeting you in Dominica, and I am well acquainted with your son who is a dentist at home, and who has given me a letter of introduction to you, which, however, I have had no occasion of using since I am living here in Accra.

My father and yourself are fellow countrymen and used to be room mates in the Mico Training College in Antigua. I have often heard him speak about you.

Having heard from one Mr. Hutchinson that you are not in the best of health at present, I take this opportunity of wishing you a speedy and complete recovery.

Hoping that our Divine Savior will fill you with the joy of His Resurrection this Eastertide.

Yours Sincerely
In the charity of the H.G.
Joseph O Bowers S.V.D.
Catholic Mission,
P.O. Box Accra
March 21st 1940”

On April 22, 1953 he returned to the United States to be consecrated and to take a vaunted position in the annals of black history in the United States.

In a ceremony noted around the world, Bishop Joseph Oliver Bowers SVD, DD, JCL was ordained by Cardinal Spellman at the Church of Our Lady of the Gulf in Bay St. Louis, USA, becoming the first black bishop to be so ordained in that country.

This is how Time Magazine reported the event in the US in an article entitled Religion: St Augustine’s First on Monday May 4, 1953.

"Joseph Oliver Bowers, native of Dominica, B.W.I., went to St. Augustine's Seminary at Bay St. Louis, Miss, in 1928 because it was then the only Roman Catholic seminary in the U.S. that would accept Negroes.

He studied for eleven years, there and in Wisconsin and Rome, then went to Accra on the Gold Coast as a missionary, where he learned three Gold Coast dialects to add to his fluent French and Latin and his working knowledge of Italian and German. With a year and a half off to become a licentiate in canon law, he stayed on in Africa for twelve years.

Last week Father Bowers, 43, was back in Bay St. Louis. At the Church of Our Lady of the Gulf, New York's Cardinal Spellman consecrated him a bishop, in the first Roman Catholic consecration of a Negro ever to take place in the U.S. Whites and Negroes sat together during the ceremony and mingled in the yard outside.

Bishop Bowers will return this summer to his Accra diocese (pop. 1,311,000), where the number of Catholics has risen in the last 14 years from 12,333 to 33,800. But before he goes back to Africa he will visit Bay St. Louis again, to ordain two Negro priests.

That will be another first for St. Augustine's Seminary: the first time in the church's U.S. history that Negro seminarians have ever been ordained by a Negro bishop.”

Another American Newspaper at the time the Afro American reported the following on May 2, 1953:

“Arch Bishop Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York Invested the Most Reverend Joseph Bowers SVD a Bishop during services there on Wednesday.

This was the first consecration of a Roman Catholic colored Bishop in the United States. The Most Rev. Mr. Bowers is the Bishop of Accra, Africa, and he returned to his Diocese on the gold coast of West Africa soon after the ceremony.

Bishop Bowers, 43, a native of the British West Indies, was trained at St Augustine Seminary here.

Catholic officials from all over the world were here for the religious observances. The ritual which installed Mr. Bowers was an hour -long ceremony. The sermon was delivered by the Most Rev. Joseph F Rummell, archbishop of New Orleans.

Two other high prelates assisted Cardinal Spellman in the elevation ceremony.

Bishop Bowers was ordained a priest in Rome in 1939. He is the first colored member of his order, the Society of the Divine Word, to be raised to the episcopacy.

After the ceremony a banquet for the clergy took place in St Augustine’s seminary.

The coat of arms of bishop Bowers is symbolic of the area which he will represent.”

Bishop Bowers founded the congregation of the Sisters of the Handmaids of the Divine Redeemer (HDR) in Accra in 1957, which was dedicated to caring and comforting the poor. He also started a school, which is named after him in his honor.

He is widely credited for tripling the catholic population and parishes in Ghana and for substantially increasing the number of Catholic priests and religious laity in the Diocese of Accra.

He would go on to serve in Antigua and St Kitts from 1971 – 1983 before retiring to his native Dominica in 1981.

About sixteen years ago the HDR Sisters, some of whom visited him in Dominica from time to time, invited him back to Ghana so they could care for him in his final days. Today he resides in the town of Agomanya, surrounded by the people that he gave so much of his life to.
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Congratulations to the humble Bishop and the people of Dominica. The Bishop embodies the Dominican spirit. That of a humble dispostion and gentle of spirit. May God add many more years to his life!
Boy I tell you, this little place on planet earth called Dominica has far reaching tentatcles.I find it blessed that anything that has an impact on humanity some how has a Dominican connection - be it tragedy,education,medicine,law,sports,finance,religion and inventions.
To God be the Glory.
God bless Bishop Bowers and I pray that he continues to enjoy a healthy life. Thank you for allowing God to use you to proclaim His name and exemplify Christ's mercy in a merciless world. I am very proud of you.

Keep looking to Jesus the author and finisher of your faith.

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