Sanctity in America: Servant of God Mary Elizabeth Lange

Elizabeth Clarisse Lange was born in Haiti and moved soon after to Santiago, Cuba, where she received an excellent education in a culturally French enclave of the city.  She immigrated to the United States in the early 1800s, arriving first in Charleston, SC, then moving on to Norfolk VA.  She finally settled in Baltimore, MD by 1813, where there was a large free black population and also a large French-speaking African Caribbean community that had fled the revolution in Haiti.  Though a number of Protestant organizations and churches had opened free schools for African American children, they couldn’t meet all their needs, so Elizabeth opened a free school for black children in her home in the Fells Point area of the city.

In Baltimore, Elizabeth met Fr. James Nicholas Joubert, SS, a Sulpician priest responsible for the catechetical education of African American children at the Lower Chapel at St. Mary’s Seminary.  After recognizing that the children could not read well, he thought it a good idea to begin a school for black girls, and sought out women of African descent to teach them.  Since Elizabeth and Marie Balas had already founded such a school, he naturally turned to them.  Fr. Joubert then thought it a good idea to found a religious community of women dedicated to the education of African American girls.  He approached Elizabeth and Marie about this and they shared with him that they had felt called to consecrate their lives to God and were awaiting from the Lord some revelation on how best to do this.  Joubert supported them and, with the approval of the archbishop, Joubert and Elizabeth founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first religious congregation of women of African descent in the United States.

On July 2, 1829, Elizabeth and Marie, along with Rosanne Boegue and Almaide Duchemin, took their first vows.  Elizabeth took the name Sister Mary, and she became the first superior general of the Oblate Sisters of Providence.  They started their first school in a rented house with twenty students.  The school was named Saint Frances Academy, and it remains in operation to this day.

In 1832 Baltimore was struck with cholera.  Now eleven in number, the Oblate Sisters volunteered to serve the ill.  Four sisters remained, including Elizabeth, now known as Mother Mary Lange.  In the mid-1840s, Mother Mary took a position as a domestic at St. Mary’s Seminary to help support her community financially.  The sisters also took in washing, ironing and mending to support their community.  In later years, concerts and bazaars would be held to raise money for their schools.  In 1850, she was appointed to serve her own community as Mistress of Novices.  By 1860, all of the schools for African American children in Baltimore were being operated by the Oblate Sisters, and they also were now educating boys as well as managing schools for children whose parents could pay tuition, conducting night classes and career training for women, and running homes for widows and orphans.

Mother Mary Lange passed away on February 3, 1882.  She was first buried in the Cathedral Cemetery and her remains later transferred to the New Cathedral Cemetery.  At her death, Mother Mary was immediately venerated as a saint by the Catholics of Baltimore.  Her congregation now serves in 25 cities in the United States and in several foreign countries, teaching and caring for people of all ages and backgrounds, from preschool to college.

In 1991, Archbishop William Cardinal Keeler of Baltimore officially opened the investigation into Mother Mary Lange’s life, beginning the process for canonization.  Her remains were exhumed and examined, then transferred to the chapel of Our Lady of Mount Providence Convent, the congregation’s motherhouse.  The Congregation for the Causes of Saints has recognized Mother Mary’s life of heroic virtue and her cause for canonization has been opened.  As such, she received the title Servant of God.

Almighty and Eternal God, you granted Mother Mary Lange extraordinary trust in Your providence.  You endowed her with humility, courage, holiness and an extraordinary sense of service to the poor and the sick.  You enabled her to found the Oblate Sisters of Providence and provided education, social and spiritual ministry especially to the African American community.  Mother Lange’s love for all enabled her too see Christ in each person, and the pain of prejudice and racial hatred never blurred that vision.  Deign to raise her to the highest honors of the altar in order that, through her intercession, more souls may come to a deeper understanding and more fervent love of You.  Heavenly Father, glorify your heart by granting also this favor (here mention your request) which we ask through the intercession of your faithful servant, Mother Mary Lange.

If favors are received, please notify LANGE GUILD, 701 Gun Road, Baltimore, MD 21227.

Be Christ for all.  Bring Christ to all.  See Christ in all.

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