Bishop earned place in history, served as missionary for nearly 80 years

Bishop Joseph Bowers, 1910-2012

Bowers,_Bishop_Joseph_for_webMost Rev. Joseph Oliver Bowers SVD, the first black man in the 20th century to be ordained a bishop in the United States, died on Nov. 6 in Ghana at age 102.

Nov. 27, 1952, marked an unprecedented day in American history. On that day in Mississippi, Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York presided over the episcopal ordination of Divine Word Missionary Joseph Bowers, making him the first of nine St. Augustine graduates to become a bishop of the Catholic Church.

Bishop Bowers, a graduate of St. Augustine Seminary in Bay St. Louis, Miss., was consecrated as bishop of Accra, Ghana (then known as the Gold Coast), succeeding Bishop Adolph Noser, SVD, who was transferred to Papua New Guinea.

Born in 1910 and raised on the Caribbean island of Dominica, Bishop Bowers was the son of Mary and Sherrif Bowers. After graduating from Dominica Grammar School, the young Bowers moved to Mississippi to study at St. Augustine, the first seminary in the United States to admit African-American men who wished to become priests and brothers.

In 1933, he became a Divine Word Missionary and was ordained to the priesthood in 1939. His work as a missionary in Ghana began in 1940, where he eventually became assistant regional superior. From 1950 until 1952, he studied canon law, earning a master’s degree at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. The following year, Pope Pius XII named him bishop of Accra, Ghana.

Bishop Bowers is known in Ghana for building schools and churches in Akotue, Akruso, Korwhere, Kwaopeniase, Nsutapong, Osonson, and elsewhere throughout the Diocese of Accra. According to The Beacon International Catholic Magazine, which is published in Ghana, the Catholic population in the diocese tripled under his leadership.

During his tenure as bishop of Accra, he established St. Anne’s Vocational School, St. Martin de Porres Hospital and Mount Mary Training College. He also co-founded the Handmaids of Divine Redeemer Congregation, a religious order of nuns in Ghana.

In 1971, Pope Paul VI transferred him to the newly established Diocese of St. John’s (now known as the Diocese of St. John’s-Basseterre), which comprises the Caribbean islands of Anguilla, Antigua, Barbuda, Montserrat, Nevis, St. Kitts and the British Virgin Islands.

Bishop Bowers retired in 1981 and for the next nine years, he lived in Charlestown, Nevis. He returned to Dominica for a few years and then to Ghana in the late 1990s. Although Bishop Bowers was a member of the Chicago Province of the Society of the Divine Word, he received permission to live the rest of his days in his beloved Ghana. The Handmaids of Divine Redeemer cared for him in his final years.

"He was an interesting man; he was a private man," said Most Rev. Edward Gilbert, CSSR, bishop of Roseau in Dominica from 1994 to 2001. "He was close to the sister community that he founded and through them the people they served."

"He was a man who was interested in justice," said Archbishop Gilbert, whose time on Dominica overlapped with Bishop Bower’s. "He could have stayed with family and have been comfortable, but he opted to go to Ghana. It’s one thing to talk and another thing to do. He did. He knew that he would never return to Dominica. In his quiet way, he was a very powerful witness to the Church, the office of bishop and the missionary organization that he served."

Dignitaries of Church and state attended the bishop’s funeral on Nov. 9. It was held in conjunction with the funeral for Brother Samuel Adjei, SVD, a native of Ghana who died at Techny, Ill., on Oct. 19.

With members of the Ghana Catholic Bishops Conference in attendance, the Most Rev. Charles Palmer Buckle, archbishop of Accra, presided over the joint funeral and Most Rev. Gabriel Kumordji, bishop of the apostolic vicariate of Afram Plains, delivered the homily. H.E. John Mahama, president of Ghana, also spoke.

Bishop Bowers was buried in the Holy Spirit Cathedral in Accra, Ghana. Brother Samuel was buried in the SVD cemetery in Nsawam. Bishop Bowers was the world’s third oldest Catholic bishop at the time of his death.

In lieu of flowers, memorial donations in the name of Bishop Bowers may be sent to the Divine Word Missionaries, P.O. Box 6099, Techny, IL  60082-6099.

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