August 22, 2008

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Possible U.S. saints: Mother Mary Lange

John F. Fink(Thirteenth in a series of columns)

Elizabeth Clarisse Lange was a refugee from St. Dominique (now known as Haiti) around 1812. She went to Baltimore, then a haven for those who escaped Haiti’s revolution and those who escaped from the French Revolution. Both groups spoke French.

Although it was illegal to educate black children, Elizabeth did so anyway. She and a friend, Marie Balas, taught them in Elizabeth’s home.

The Sulpician Fathers had left France during the French Revolution and founded St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore in 1791. They assisted Elizabeth, allowing the Haitian community the use of a basement chapel in the seminary. The Sulpicians assigned Father Jacques Joubert to pastor the Haitian refugees.

In 1828, Father Joubert suggested to Elizabeth that they start a religious community of black women with the mission of educating black women. Elizabeth accepted. She and three other Haitian women became the founders of the Oblate Sisters of Providence. Elizabeth took the religious name of Mary. After her election as the first superior, she was called Mother Mary the rest of her life.

Father Joubert wrote the constitution for the community. Archbishop James Whitfield approved it in 1829 and Pope Gregory XVI did so in 1831, making the Oblate Sisters of Providence the first community of religious women of African descent.

The following years, though, were difficult as the sisters suffered from prejudice. Maria M. Lannon wrote in her book Response to Love: The Story of Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, O.S.P., “The sisters had to endure verbal insults, along with threats of physical abuse from some of Baltimore’s white Catholics who objected to colored women wearing the habit of a nun.”

The sisters suffered from extreme poverty, surviving on the small amounts paid by the parents of their students and from the sale of needlework, sewing, mending and working as laundresses at St. Mary’s Seminary.

Even ecclesiastical superiors refused to help. After Archbishop Whitfield, no other archbishop during Mother Mary’s lifetime supported the community, one of them suggesting that the sisters disband and return to the lay state. However, they did have some supporters, including Redemptorist Father John Neumann, who would later become Archbishop of Philadelphia and a canonized saint. He traveled to Baltimore four times a year to serve as the sisters’ confessor.

Despite the difficulties, the community continued to add members and schools. Between 1857 and 1866, the sisters opened schools in Fells Point, Md., Philadelphia, New Orleans and another in Baltimore. However, they all closed for financial reasons.

In 1860, the Jesuits bought a house for the sisters if the sisters would do the laundry at Loyola College. In 1879, the Josephite Fathers became chaplains for the sisters.

Mother Mary was superior for nine years, although not all consecutively. As she aged, she remained in her room at St. Francis Academy in Baltimore except for Mass, but enjoyed visits from her sisters and students. She died there, after receiving Communion, on Feb. 3, 1882. She was 98.

In 2003, the sisters celebrated 175 years of service.†

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