Mother Mary Lange

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Mary Lange, O.S.P., was an African-American religious sister who was the foundress of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, a religious congregation established to allow African-American women to enter religious life in the Catholic Church. The cause for her beatification has been started and thus she is honored as a Servant of God by the Catholic Church.


Early life[edit]

She was born Elizabeth Clarisse Lange. Her country of birth is not documented, but oral tradition says that she was born in the French colony of Saint-Domingue in 1784 and immigrated to Baltimore from Cuba.[1]

According to this tradition, Lange's grandfather was Marcdoche Lange, a plantation owner in the colony. 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 Haitian Revolution of 1804 to take up residence in Santiago de Cuba, the earliest location in her life which can be documented. There, in a primarily French-speaking colony, she received an excellent education.

Not long after this, Lange emigrated to the United States. By 1813, she had settled in Baltimore, Maryland, where a large community of Haitians had been established.[3] By 1790, Baltimore's free African-American population had already outnumbered the city's slave population.[4]

In the early 1800s, various Protestant 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] Lange recognized the need for a Catholic 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. She and her friend, Marie Madeleine Balas (later Sister Frances, O.S.P.) operated the school for over ten years.[3] Mother Lange’s school offered a free education for Catholics and non-Catholics alike.[5]


In Baltimore, Lange met a Sulpician priest, James Nicholas Joubert, S.S., who was a native of France and a former soldier. Joubert had also fled the rebellion in Haiti. She shared with him that she and her colleague, Balas, felt called to live as a community of religious sisters,[4] but the finances for their enterprise were diminishing. Joubert agreed to support them and persuaded James Whitfield, the Archbishop of Baltimore, to approve the new community.[2] Thus the Oblate Sisters of Providence were founded by Lange and 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, Lange and three other women (Rosanne Boegue, Marie Balas and an older student, Almaide Duchemin) took religious vows.[5] Lange took the name of "Sister Mary". Whitfield appointed her Mother Superior of the new community. The sisters adopted a religious 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. Frances Academy (Baltimore, Maryland) 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]

By 1832, the community had grown to eleven members when a cholera outbreak hit the city. While the entire community volunteered to risk their lives in nursing the victims of this plague, only four were chosen, Lange herself and three companions.[7]

In the mid-1840s, when Sister Frances died, Lange took her place working as a domestic at St. Mary’s Seminary in the city to help support her community. In 1850 she was appointed to serve the congregation as Mistress of novices, a position in which she served for the next ten years.[8]

Lange died on February 3, 1882, and was buried in the New Cathedral Cemetery of the city.[9]


This was the beginning of a legacy that has thrived over the past years in 25 cities in the United States, as well as drawing vocations to the congregation she founded from Cuba, where schools were established and operated by the sisters prior to the Cuban Revolution, when they were seized by the new government.[5]

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.


Lange became venerated after her death as a saint by the Catholic population of Baltimore. In 1991, with the approval of the Holy See, Cardinal William Henry Keeler, then the Archbishop of Baltimore, officially opened a formal investigation of Lange's life to study it for her possible canonization. As part of this process, 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 Lange's life were sent to the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints which then approved the cause for her sainthood.[9]


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