A painting depicts Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, who founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore, the world’s first sustained women’s religious community for Black women. OSV NEWS PHOTO/COURTESY CATHOLIC REVIEW
Black Americans on the road to sainthood: Mother Mary Lange
BY F. VERONICA WILHITE, OFFICE OF BLACK CATHOLIC MINISTRY
As we conclude our journey through the lives of the six Black American candidates for sainthood in this WKC series, in this month of Mary our final candidate chose the name “Sister Mary” when she took her first vows as a religious. She also founded the first religious congregation of Black women in the U.S. – the Oblate Sisters of Providence.
She was born Elizabeth Clarisse Lange on a plantation in the French colony of Saint Dominique in 1774 to the daughter of the Jewish owner and a mulatto slave. The young woman emigrated with her parents from Haiti to the area of Santiago Cuba sometime before the Haitian Revolution. In 1817 she and her mother emigrated to the United States where they eventually settled in Baltimore. Several years later her mother returned to Haiti, and Lange decided to remain alone in Baltimore which was predominately Protestant and slaveholding. Lange was a Black, Catholic French-speaking woman in a city with a French community of white refugees from the French Revolution and Black refugees from the French West indies. Although segregated, both groups were served by St. Mary’s Chapel which was run by the Sulpicians, a French religious order of emigrees from the French and the Haitian Revolutions. It was a French priest, Fr. James Nicholas Joubert, a catechist for the Black students who noted their lack of reading skills and obtained permission from the archbishop to open a school for Black girls.
Lange and another refugee, Marie Magdalene Balas, opened a school for Black Catholic children in their home since the few existing schools for Blacks were Protestant. They responded to Fr. Joubert’s request to teach Black girls, and Fr. Joubert supported their desire to consecrate their lives to God in a religious order. Since Blacks were denied admission to existing religious communities, the archbishop approved the establishment of the Oblate Sisters of Providence with the primary focus on the education of Black girls.
On July 2, 1829, Lange, who became the first ever Black mother superior general of the Oblates, took her first vows along with three other Black women. They were ridiculed and physically threatened but she persisted in her service to the educationally deprived and her devotion to her faith. The four sisters started with 20 students in a rented house, overcoming racism, poverty and many hardships. They expanded their service to vocational and educational training for women and established homes for orphans and widows. When faced with financial ruin the sisters took in laundry and even hired out as domestics themselves in order to maintain their ministry to the Black community.
Mother Mary Lange served as an Oblate sister until her death on Feb. 3, 1882. The first school, St. Frances Academy, celebrated its 180th anniversary in 2008. After her death many Catholics in Baltimore revered her as a saint.
In 1991, with the approval of the Holy See, Cardinal William Henry Keeler, Archbishop of Baltimore, officially opened a formal investigation of Lange’s life to study it for her possible canonization. As part of this process, she was titled “Servant of God” and her remains were exhumed and examined. They were then moved to the chapel of Our Lady of Mount Providence Convent, the motherhouse of the congregation.
In 2004, documents describing Mother Mary Lange’s life were sent to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints. In 2023, the Vatican approved the positio (the documentation of Lange’s life), a key step in the process towards being declared “Venerable” by the Church, and a step forward in the process of canonizing her.
Let us keep her cause for canonization as well as the continuation of her ministry in prayer.
In this month of May, let us also honor Our Lady of Kibeho, Rwanda, recognized by the Vatican in 2001. Currently hers is the only Marian apparition site on the Africa continent approved by the Catholic Church. Her feast day is Nov. 28.
F. Veronica Wilhite is the director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministry in the Diocese of Owensboro.
https://tinyurl.com/32zxd593, “Father James Joubert, SS”, St. Francis Academy, Baltimore
http://motherlangeguild.homestead.com/history.html, “The Cause of Canonization: Mother Mary Lange”, Mother Lange Guild
https://tinyurl.com/5hyankpk, “Keeping watch”, Therese Wilson Favors, The Catholic Review
http://motherlangeguild.homestead.com/index.html, “About Mother Lange”, Mother Lange Guild
Originally printed in the May 2023 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.