By Sr. Regina Bechtle
Born in Cuba around 1790, Elizabeth Lange emigrated around 1813 to Baltimore, where many refugees from the Haitian revolution (1791-1804) had fled. Finding a lack of public education for black children, she and a friend began to teach them in their home in the Fells Point section.
In 1828, Sulpician Fr. James Joubert asked Elizabeth to start a school. She revealed to him her dream of beginning a religious community. In 1829, she and three other Black women took vows as the Oblate Sisters of Providence. Elizabeth, their leader, became known as Mother Mary Lange.
Their mission began with the education of “colored” girls; it soon grew into a school for boys, care of orphans, a home for elderly widows, and nursing during a cholera epidemic. Also, “the early Sisters did home visiting and conducted night schools so black adults could learn to read and write.” Mother Lange died Feb. 3, 1882 and was named a Servant of God – the first step toward being declared a Saint – in 1991.
The Sisters endured constant poverty and overt racism, even from fellow Catholics. Today, we recognize with sorrow and shame the fact that communities of women religious at the time did not accept Black candidates.
One of the community’s credal statements witnesses both to its strong faith born of trial, and to its heroic commitment to love in spite of racial prejudice: “We believe the suffering that has been intrinsic to our Congregation from its beginning enables us to reach out to others with tenderness and compassion.”
The Oblate Sisters of Providence was the first religious order for women of African descent in the United States. It continues today, with Sisters serving in Maryland, New York, Florida and Costa Rica. Their Baltimore high school, St. Frances Academy, is said to be the oldest continuously operating Black Catholic school in the nation.