Skip to comments.Mother Mary Lange, foundress of the First Black Religious Order in the USA
Posted on 02/25/2005 9:47:41 PM PST by Coleus
Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, OSP
The early years of Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, the foundress of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, have been delineated more by oral tradition than by anything else. Elizabeth was born in the 1780s, a native of the Caribbean where havoc was constantly being created by both weather and the will of man. Her country of birth is not documented but oral tradition says she was born in Haiti and moved with her family to Santiago, Cuba. She received an excellent education and in the early 1800s Elizabeth left Cuba and settled in the United States. By 1813, Providence directed her to Baltimore, Maryland where a large community of French speaking Catholics from Haiti was established. Elizabeth came to Baltimore as a courageous, loving, and deeply spiritual woman. She was a strong, independent thinker and doer. As a well educated immigrant, she was of independent means, possessing monies left to her by her father. It did not take Lange long to recognize that the children of her fellow immigrants needed education. She determined to respond to that need by opening a school in her home for the children. She and her friend, Marie Magdaleine Balas (later Sr. Frances, OSP) operated the school for over ten years.
Providence intervened through the person of Reverend James Hector Joubert, SS, who was encouraged by James Whitfield, Archbishop of Baltimore, presented Elizabeth Lange with the challenge to found a religious congregation for the education of black children. He would provide direction, solicit financial assistance, and encourage other "women of colour" to become members of this, the first congregation of African American women religious in the history of the Catholic Church. Elizabeth joyously acquiesed. She need no longer keep locked up the deepest desire of her heart. For years she had felt God's call to consecrate herself and her works entirely to Him. How was this to be? Black men and women could not at that time aspire to the religious life. But now God was providing a way! On July 2, 1829 Elizabeth and three other women professed their vows and became Oblate Sisters of Providence.
Elizabeth, foundress and first superior of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, took the name of Mary. She was superior general from 1829 to 1832, and from 1835 to 1841. This congregation would educate and evangelize African Americans. Yet they would always be open to meeting the needs of the times. Thus the Oblate SIsters educated youth and provided a home for orphans. Slaves who had been purchased and then freed were educated and at times admitted into the congregation. They nursed the terminally ill during the cholera epidemic of 1832, sheltered the elderly, and even served as domestics at St. Mary's Seminary in a time of crisis.
Mother Mary's early life prepared her well for the turbulence that followed the death of Father Joubert in 1843. She suffered violence of soul as she was buffeted by poverty and racial injustice. There was a sense of abandonment at the dwindling number of pupils and defections of her closest companions and co-workers. Yet, through it all Mother Mary never lost faith in Providence. Mother Mary Lange practiced faith to an extraordinary degree. In fact, it was her deep faith which enabled her to perservere against all odds. To her black brothers and sisters she gave herself and her material possessions until she was empty of all but Jesus, whom she shared generously with all by witnessing to His teaching. In close union with Him, she lived through disappointment and opposition until God called her home, February 3, 1882.
A window for Mother Mary Lange:
A source of pride for Haitians
By Marlène Rigaud Apollon
On Sunday, August 5, 2001, I had the privilege of being among the hundreds of people who crowded the Crypt's chapel of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. to attend the 1:30 PM Latin mass celebrated by His Eminence William Cardinal Keeler of Baltimore. For most of those present, but especially for one particular group, the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the occasion held great significance: That mass was the first part of a celebration in honor of Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, the foundress of Haitian heritage of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, who is now a candidate for canonization. Several members of the Mother Mary Lange Guild whose mission is to promote the cause of the beatification and canonization of Mother Lange had also made the pilgrimage. Unfortunately, Father André Pierre, who, for more than a year, has actively and enthusiastically led the Haitian community in their discovery of Mother Lange, had to attend the 64th International Annual Meeting of the Catholic Biblical Association of America, held this year at Seton Hall University in East Orange, New Jersey and could not be with us.
During his homily, Cardinal Keeler reminded us that Latin was the only language used for religious services in Mother Lange's days and that it was, therefore, appropriate to use it to honor her. For those of us who grew up with that tradition, we certainly felt right at home. His Eminence then gave an overview of the life and work of this extraordinary woman who had fled her native Haiti and had spent a few years in Cuba before settling in Baltimore where slavery had not yet been abolished. There, overcoming racial prejudice and challenging the existing law that forbade educating black children, she opened a school for those children in her own home. She later founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first Catholic order for Black women, on July 2, 1829, thus changing the face of the Catholic church who, until then, did not admit people of color neither as priests nor as nuns.
Following the mass, Cardinal Keeler invited Mother Lange's spiritual daughters to join him in the Crypt's sacristy for the second part of the celebration: the dedication of a new stained glass window representing the likeness of Mother Lange in her nun's habit. Close to one hundred people then filed in behind them to witness that special event.
Seeing the joy on the faces of the Oblates Sisters during the mass and dedication ceremony, I thought of all the years the sisters had struggled to survive and I knew what a glorious moment it was for them. As a member of the Mother Mary Lange Guild and of the Haitian-Americans United (HAU) for Mother Mary Lange, I knew that all of us who were there shared their pride and happiness. As a Haitian-American, I felt blessed to have been able to witness that moment, grateful to all the generations of sisters who kept Mother Lange's legacy alive and thankful to the Catholic Negro American Mission Board who had provided the funds to have the window made.
Mother Lange's window is at the right of that of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. On the left of Mother Theresa is the window of Pierre Toussaint, the other Haitian candidate for sainthood. All of us of Haitian origin or ancestry, whether or not we are Catholics, should take pride in their accomplishments and make it a point to visit them.
Elizabeth Clarisse Lange (aka Mother Mary)
Born cira 1784 - Died February 3, 1882
Elizabeth Clarisse Lange's parents were refugees who fled to Cuba from the revolution taking place in their native Saint Dominque known today as Haiti. Her father was a gentleman of some financial means and social standing. Her mother was a Creole. However, in the early 1800's young Elizabeth left Santiago de Cuba to seek peace and security in the United States. Providence directed her to Baltimore, Maryland where a great influx of French-speaking Catholic San Dominguios refugees was settling.
About 1813 Elizabeth Lange came to Baltimore. She was a courageous, loving, and deeply spiritual woman. She came as a strong, independent thinker and doer. Although she was a refugee, she was well educated, and of independent means, possessing monies left to her by her father. It did not take long to recognize that the children of her fellow refugees needed education. She determined to respond to that need in spite of being a black woman in a slave state long before the Emancipation Proclamation; she used her own money and home to educate children of color. For ten years Elizabeth, with a friend Marie Magdaline Balas, offered free education.
Mother Mary Clarisse Lane, OSP was the founder and the initial "Superior General" of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first Back Roman Catholic order to operate in the United States. This congregation would educate and evangelize African Americans. Yet they would always be open to meeting the needs of the times. Thus the Oblate Sisters educated youth and provided a home for orphans. Slaves who had been purchased and freed were educated and at time admitted into the congregations.
Mother Mary Lange practiced faith to an extraordinary degree. In fact, it was her deep faith, which enabled her to persevere against all odds. To her black brothers and sisters she gave of herself and her material possessions until she was empty of all but Jesus, whom she shared generously with all by being a living witness to his teaching. In close union with her God, she lived through a disappointment opposition until God called her to Himself February 3, 1882.
Oblate Sisters of Providence
Foundress of the first black religious order in the USA