Bishop Joseph Oliver Bowers - The world's earliest ordained bishop
THOMSON FONTAINE, Sunday June 21, 2009
Accra (TDN)-At the age of 99, Bishop Joseph Oliver Bowers of Dominica is recognised by the Catholic Church as the fourth oldest Bishop in the world and the oldest in the Caribbean. Of all the bishops currently alive he is the one who was ordained the earliest (56 years ago).
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.
More than fifty-six years ago on April 22, 1953, Bishop Bowers was celebrated all over the world, when at the height of the civil rights struggle for blacks in the United States, he became the first black bishop to be consecrated in that country. The first black bishop in the United States was James Healy who was consecrated in 1875 in France.
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.
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.
Just two months shy of his twenty-ninth birthday he was ordained a priest on January 22, 1939. He continued to serve as a priest in the Mississippi area with the Society of the Divine Word from 1939 to 1952.
Throughout his time of service in the United States, the young priest never forgot his homeland making several visits to Dominica to encourage and strengthen his fellow country men of faith. At the time, more than 98 percent of Dominica’s population considered themselves devout followers of the Roman Catholic Church.
Deeply committed to his church, and exhibiting a profound love in the service of humanity, Father Bowers was named auxciliary Bishop to Ghana, and Titular Bishop of Cyparissia. On January 13, 1953 he was transferred to Accra, Ghana’s capital as its new Bishop. He would remain as Bishop of Accra until 1971.
Bishop Bowers arrived in Ghana in time to greet the outstanding Dominican jurist George Christian James who served on Ghana’s national legislative council from 1929 to 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.
One of his first tasks upon arrival in Accra was to continue work on the partially completed Cathedral of the Holy Spirit; a task which was completed with its opening on January 05, 1957.
Considered by many to be a visionary and dynamic leader, as well as having an endearing love for the poor and less fortunate, 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.
Bishop Bowers 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.
After serving for eighteen years in Ghana, he was appointed as the first Bishop of the newly configured St. Johns -Basseterre diocese on January 16, 1971. The diocese comprised the islands of Antigua-Barbuda, St. Kitts-Nevis, Montserrat, Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands. He would reside in Antigua until his retirement on July 17, 1981.
Upon his retirement and at the age of 71, Bishop Bowers returned to his beloved Dominica to live as he always did humbly and without fanfare in the village of Mahaut, cared for by his sister, Blossom Ann Reid.
Always a man devoted to caring for humanity, he endeared himself to the people of Dominica through his thoughtfulness, kindness and a fine sense of humor.
When he was well into his eighties, 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.
And so, just one year shy of 100 years, this deeply religious, devoted and gentle soul continues to shine as a living example of sacrifice and service in the name of God and his church, directed to those he loved.