Mother Mary Lange
|Elizabeth Clarisse Lange|
Santiago de Cuba, Cuba
|Attributes||Called Servant of God
by Roman Catholic Church
|Major works||Founded Oblate Sisters of Providence|
Mary Lange, O.S.P. (1794-1882), 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 opened and thus she is honored as a Servant of God by the Catholic Church.
She was born Elizabeth Clarisse Lange in Santiago de Cuba, in a culturally French community, in about 1794. There she received an excellent education. She left Cuba in the early years of the 1800s and immigrated to the United States. Oblate oral tradition said she arrived first in Charleston, South Carolina, then traveled to Norfolk, Virginia, and finally settled in Baltimore, Maryland, by 1813. Baltimore's free African-American population had already outnumbered the city's slave population and there was also a fair-sized French speaking African Caribbean population who had early fled the revolution in Haiti.
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. Lange recognized the need for education for African American children and opened a school for them in her home in the Fells Point area of the city. There were no free public schools for children of color in Baltimore until 1866.
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. He was in charge of teaching catechism to the African American children who attended the Lower Chapel at Saint Mary's Seminary. He found they could not read very well and thought it would be a good idea to start a school for girls. After getting permission from the Archbishop he began looking for two women of color to serve as teachers. A friend suggested Elizabeth Lange and Marie Balas since they were already operating a school in their home. He then decided it a good idea to start a women religious order at the same time, to teach the children, and asked the women if they would do so. They shared with him that felt called to consecrate their lives to God and had been waiting for Him to show them a way to serve Him. Joubert agreed to support them and persuaded Archbishop James Whitfield to approve the new community. Thus the Oblate Sisters of Providence were founded by Lange and Joubert as the first religious congregation of women of African descent in the United States. The Oblate Sisters of Providence were established with the primary purpose of the Catholic education of girls.
On July 2, 1829, Lange and three other women (Rosanne Boegue, Marie Balas, and an older student, Almaide Duchemin) took their first vows. Lange took the name of "Sister Mary" and became the first superior general of the new community. The sisters adopted a religious habit of a black dress and cape, with a white cap. They started in a rented house with four sisters and twenty students. The school later became known as St. Frances Academy, and is still in operation today in Baltimore. 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 later conducted night classes for women, vocational and career training, and established homes for widows and orphans.
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.
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.
Lange died on February 3, 1882, and was buried in the Cathedral Cemetery. Her remains were transferred to New Cathedral Cemetery on February 6, 1882. On May 28, 2013, Mother Mary Lange was exhumed and transferred to the home of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, where she was laid to rest in their chapel.
This was the beginning of a legacy that has thrived over the past years in 25 cities in the United States, as well as in several foreign countries. 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. The 180th anniversary of her founding of St. Frances Academy was celebrated in 2008.
After her death Lange became venerated as a saint by the Catholic population of Baltimore. 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, 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 opened the cause for her sainthood.
- Mother Lange Guild
- Favors, Therese Wilson (October 18, 2012). "Keeping Watch". The Catholic Review.
- "About Mother Lange". Mother Lange Guild.
- "Mother Mary Lange's remains transferred to her order's mother church in Catonsville". tribunedigital-baltimoresun. Retrieved 2017-12-24.