Mother Mary Lange

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Elizabeth Clarisse Lange, commonly known as Mother Mary Lange, was the founder of the Oblate Sisters of Providence and is designated a servant of God. Her country of birth is not documented, but oral tradition says Lange was born in Haiti in 1784 and immigrated to Baltimore from Cuba.[1]

Early life[edit]

Her grandfather was Marcdoche Lange, a plantation owner in Saint-Domingue in the western portion of the island of Hispaniola. He was known by the nickname "Israelite",[2] and had accumulated some wealth, some of which he sent with Elizabeth's family when they fled the revolution to take up residence in Santiago de Cuba. There, in a primarily French speaking community, she received an excellent education.

In the early 1800s Elizabeth emigrated to the United States. By 1813, she was in Baltimore, Maryland where a large community of French speaking Catholics from Haiti was established.[3] Already by 1790 Baltimore's free African-American population outnumbered the city's slave population.[4]

In the early 1800s, religious organizations in Baltimore such as Sharp Street Methodist Episcopal Church’s Free African School (1802), Daniel Coker’s Bethel Charity School (c. 1812), St. James Protestant Episcopal Day School (1824), and William Lively’s Union Seminary (1825) created schools for African American students. While providing a valuable service, they could not meet the demands of Baltimore’s growing free African American population.[4] Elizabeth recognized the need for education for the children of her fellow immigrants. In 1818 she opened a school in her home in the Fells Point area of the city for the children. She and her friend, Marie Magdaleine Balas (later Sister Frances, OSP) operated the school for over ten years. [3] Mother Lange’s school accepted Catholics and non-Catholics alike.[5]

In Baltimore she met Sulpician priest, Father James Hector Nicholas Joubert. French, and a former soldier, Joubert had also fled the rebellion in Haiti. Elizabeth told Father Joubert that she and Marie Balas were interested in establishing a community of African American Roman Catholic nuns.[4] Joubert persuaded Archbishop James Whitfield to approve the order.[2] The Oblate Sisters of Providence were founded by Mother Mary Lange, OSP, and Rev. James Nicholas Joubert, as the first religious congregation of women of African descent.[3] The Oblate Sisters were established with the primary purpose of the Catholic education of children.[5]

On July 2, 1829, Elizabeth and three other women [Rosanne Boegue, Marie Balas and an older student, Almaide Duchemin] took their vows.[5] Elizabeth took the name of "Sister Mary". The sisters adopted a habit of a black dress and cape, with a white cap, inspired by the simple dress of Mennonite women in western Maryland. She started St. Francis Academy in a rented building with two other sisters and twenty students.[2] While experiencing poverty, racism and untold hardships, the Oblate Sisters sought to evangelize the Black community through Catholic education. In addition to schools, the sisters conducted night classes for women, vocational and career training, and established homes for widows and orphans.[6]

Mother Lange died on February 3, 1882.

This was the beginning of a legacy that has thrived over the past years in 25 cities in the United States, Cuba, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and most recently Africa.

In 2005 three Baltimore parochial schools (St. Dominic School, Shrine of The Little Flower and St. Anthony of Padua) were combined into Mother Mary Lange Catholic School, thus becoming the first school named after her in America. 2008 was the 180th anniversary of her founding of St. Frances Academy.


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