Born in Baltimore and raised on Linden Avenue, he attended Mount St. Joseph High School before entering the old St. Charles College, a seminary. He earned degrees in philosophy and theology at St. Mary's Seminary and the Catholic University of America, where he also earned a second master's degree.
He was ordained in 1949 as a priest in the Archdiocese of Baltimore and joined the Society of St. Sulpice in 1952, a congregation of religious men who educate priests.
He initially taught American history at St. Charles and later at high schools in Seattle and Kenmore, Wash. In 1980, he returned to Baltimore and became his order's historian, first working in a basement archive under the chapel of Our Lady of the Angels Roman Catholic Church, where one of his two funeral services will be held.
Father Bowen was interim director of St. Mary's Spiritual Center on Paca Street in Seton Hill from 1983 to 1984. He often gave tours of the walled grounds his order purchased in 1791.
Friends said Father Bowen was an energetic man who expanded his duties by volunteering to say daily early- morning Masses at St. Mark's in Catonsville and at the Oblate Sisters of Providence motherhouse on Gun Road. He also spent several days a week at Calvert Hall College High School in Towson.
He was a postulator, or researcher-biographer and advocate, for the canonization of Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, a Caribbean immigrant who lived in Baltimore beginning in the 1820s and was the founder of the Oblate Sisters, the first religious order for African-American women. She died in Baltimore in 1882. He wrote letters advocating Mother Lange's canonization to Vatican officials. The canonization process is continuing.
"We know she is in heaven, but he wanted to proclaim that she is a saint," said Sister Virginie Fish, an Oblate Sister who worked with him. She recalled Father Bowen as a chaplain who was a "holy, priestly priest" who celebrated daily Mass at her convent for 31 years.
Others remembered his unassuming manner and sense of purpose.
"He was a reserved, private and disciplined man who was very independent," said the Rev. Thomas R. Ulshafer, superior of the American Province of Sulpicians, who was once Father Bowen's student. "He didn't spend money on himself and always drove inexpensive cars. But he did what he felt was important, and that was helping where he was needed."
Father Bowen helped oversee the transfer of his order's extensive archives to a new building at its Roland Park seminary and university.
"If John Bowen didn't know it, it couldn't be known," said the Rev. Michael Roach, pastor of St. Bartholomew's Church and a Mount St. Mary's University faculty member. "He was a phenomenal resource of the history of the church in Baltimore. He could solve the riddles of time."
The Rev. Christopher J. Whatley, pastor of St. Mark's Roman Catholic Church in Catonsville, called him an "extraordinary gentleman" who was a meticulous record-keeper.
"As bright and knowledgeable as he was, he was also a humble person," Father Whatley said.
A memorial Mass will be held at 7 p.m. Monday at St. Mark's, 30 Melvin Ave. in Catonsville. A Mass of Christian burial will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday at Our Lady of the Angels Church, 711 Maiden Choice Lane, Catonsville.
Survivors include a brother, James E. Bowen of Boise, Idaho; and a sister, Virginia B. Donovan of Ellicott City.