On that memorable day, when Elizabeth Lange met Sulpician Father James Joubert, providence was at work. Father Joubert expressed his need for help in instructing the black children in religious education, and Elizabeth was willing to offer that help. Likewise, Elizabeth mentioned to Joubert that for 10 years she had the desire to offer her life to God as a religious. At that time in history, black women were not accepted as religious in white congregations. In fact, women often brought black women as slaves to religious communities as part of their dowry. Father Joubert himself had thought of starting a religious order that would teach black children. The two decided that the time was now to start such an institution. In September 1827, Father Joubert went to ask permission of Archbishop Ambrose Marechal to start such an institution. The archbishop thought it was a good idea but not feasible at the present time. Father Joubert left saddened but not discouraged. Archbishop Marechal died the following year and his successor, the administrator of the archdiocese, became the next archbishop. After meeting with Father Joubert, Archbishop James Whitfield approved the concept and suggested to Father Joubert to begin when he was ready. Ready he was.
Father Joubert rented a house outside the seminary on St. Mary’s Court. The first black Catholic school in America came into existence with 11 boarders and nine day scholars. In addition, some free children, called children of the house, were accepted. The year was 1828.
A few months later, the owner wanted his property, and the sisters and students had to move. A benefactor of the seminary offered Father Joubert the sale of a house less than he paid for it. The occupants were unable to move at so short a notice and a house was rented near the seminary. It was here, in this humble dwelling at 610 George St., that the first vows of African-American women were pronounced in the United States of America. (Martin O’Malley, formerly mayor of Baltimore, dedicated a monument on the site.) A few months later, the sisters were able to move to their larger quarters on Richmond Street. The facility proved a blessing to the small congregation. The student population increased, the number of sisters expanded, additional property was added to the complex and the Oblate Sisters’ chapel became the center of black Catholic worship.
Then tragedy struck. Father Joubert died. It was a sad day when the sisters returned from the burial. Who, if anyone, would be their spiritual director? The present archbishop, Samuel Eccleston, had no use for religious of color. He forbade the sisters to receive new candidates, and to add insult to injury, Archbishop Eccleston suggested that the order disband and the sisters return to the world. He also suggested that the sisters, since they were educated, could find employment in the better households of Maryland. But providence is greater than the voice of any prelate. The sisters opted not to disband and celebrate their 180th anniversary this year.
Still without a spiritual director, the sisters and students walked from Park Avenue to St. James Church in east Baltimore for Mass and confession. When St. Alphonsus was completed, the Oblate community walked down Park Avenue to Saratoga Street for religious exercises. It was here that St. John Neumann noticed the sisters in church and offered to help them whenever possible. When a young Redemptorist was ordained, St. John Neumann suggested that he become the spiritual director of the Oblates. He was Thaddeus Anwander. When Father Anwander asked permission of Archbishop Eccleston to do so, the archbishop replied, “Of what good?” Father Anwander, on his knees, continually begged this permission and in the end, Archbishop Eccleston yielded. Again, a new era in the history of the Oblate Sisters of Providence began.
On July 2, the Oblate Sisters of Providence will celebrate the 180th anniversary of their founding. All are invited to celebrate with them at Mass at 6:30 p.m. at the Oblate Sisters of Providence motherhouse, located at 701 Gun Road. For more information, call Oblate Sister Magdala Marie Gilbert at 410-242-8500.
Oblate Sister Mary Reginald Gerdes is a historical researcher of the Oblate Sisters of Providence.