On Oct. 23, Mother Mary Lange, a trailblazing Catholic woman of African descent, will be honored yet again as the Archdiocese of Baltimore breaks ground on its first new city school in nearly 60 years. Here’s a look at her incredible life:
Elizabeth Clarisse Lange was born in the late 1700s in Santiago, Cuba, where she was well educated and lived in a French-speaking community. Earlier stories had said she had lived in Haiti, but Sharon Knecht, archivist for Oblate Sisters of Providence, says there are no historical records to indicate any connection to Haiti. By 1812, Mother Lange had immigrated to Baltimore, joining a large number of French-speaking Catholics from Haiti. While there are no historical records explaining why Mother Lange moved to the United States, Knecht believes that Mother Lange left Cuba rather than swear an oath of allegiance to Spain, which had recently consolidated power on the island. Knecht says Mother Lange described herself as “French to the core.”
After moving to the Fells Point area of Baltimore, Mother Lange discovered that there were few educational opportunities for black children in the city. As Southern state, Maryland practiced slavery and many black people in Baltimore at that time were enslaved. Meanwhile, free African Americans and the recent Haitian immigrants faced intense prejudice and were denied access to most schools. Along with her friend, Marie Balas, Mother Lange opened a school open to anyone in her small home.
Mother Lange and Balas’ small school later attracted the attention of Sulpician Father James Hector Nicholas Joubert. A former soldier who had fled the slave rebellion in Haiti, he sought to teach the recent Haitian immigrants Catholicism, but found that many did not know how to read. After visiting Mother Lange’s school in 1828, Father Joubert, with the backing of Archbishop James Whitfield, encouraged Mother Lange to found a religious order to educate African-American girls. The Oblate Sisters of Providence would become the first sustained religious order for women of African descent in the United States. Mother Lange, who had long wanted to become a nun, followed her calling and took the name of Mary. For decades, the Oblate Sisters of Providence were the sole providers of Catholic education for black children in Baltimore.
The sisters’ school would eventually become St. Frances Academy — the oldest continuously operating school for black Catholic children in the United States. With little outside support, the sisters also performed other charitable work, including establishing homes for widows and orphans and treating the terminally ill during a cholera epidemic in 1832. After years of service to the church and the community, Mother Lange died in 1882 at her convent. The Oblate Sisters continue their work today with about 80 sisters working in Maryland, Florida, New York and Costa Rica.
Watch a video of the 2013 reinterment of Mother Mary Lange’s remains at the motherhouse of the Oblate Sisters of Providence. Story continues below.
In 1991, the Catholic Church opened an investigation into whether Mother Lange should be considered for the sainthood, naming her a “servant of God.” But the road to sainthood is a long one. Knecht says that Xaverian Brother Reginald Cruz has recently complete writing his “positio,” a document arguing for Mother Lange’s sainthood. Once published, the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints will evaluate the document, and if approved the “positio” will be forwarded to the Pope, who could grant Mother Lange the title of “venerable.” After the approval of the “positio,” church scholars will then have to document two confirmed miracles attributed to her intercession. Knecht says the Oblate Sisters of Providence are currently working to raise Mother Lange’s profile globally to ensure her success in the lengthy process.
For more information about Mother Lange Catholic School, click here.
Email Tim Swift at tswift@CatholicReview.org