Sister Thea Bowman was the role model for Whoopi Goldberg's character in the 1992 movie "Sister Act" — not the criminal part, the singing part.
Shannen Dee Williams, Villanova history professor, said Bowman transcended racism to leave a lasting mark on the Catholic Church. One of her most public moments was appearing before the Conference of Bishops in 1989.
"She begins by singing the old Gospel song, 'Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,' " said Williams, "to use that as a metaphor for the history of African-American Catholics in the church.
"And then she ends the performance by asking the bishops to stand up and hold hands while she sings 'We Shall Overcome.' "
Williams said even now, black women and men face a barrier in the contemporary Catholic Church.
Bowman entered the convent in 1953 at the age of 15 and was known for her "ministry of joy." She died of bone cancer in 1990.
Williams said the process of canonizing Bowman is in the early stages.