February 2, 2018

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Black Catholics in U.S. history: This week, Mary Lange

John F. FinkLast week, I wrote about Pierre Toussaint, who had been a slave in Haiti (then known as Saint Dominique) and then in New York. Elizabeth Clarisse Lange was also originally from Haiti. She was among refugees from the revolution in Haiti who made it to Baltimore—then a haven for those who escaped Haiti’s revolution in 1812—when she was 28.

At that time, it was illegal to educate black children. Elizabeth did so anyway. Beginning around 1818, she and a friend, Marie Balas, also a refugee from Haiti, turned Elizabeth’s home into a school for black girls.

The Haitian refugees in Baltimore were being helped by the Sulpician Fathers. They had been forced to leave France during the French Revolution. Since both the Sulpicians and the Haitians spoke French and were Catholic, the Sulpicians allowed the Haitian community the use of a basement chapel in the seminary.

They also assigned Father Jacques Joubert to pastor the Haitian refugees. His family had escaped the French Revolution by moving to Saint Dominique. When a revolution occurred there, too, he alone of his family made it to the United States in 1804. It seemed natural that he would be appointed to pastor the Haitians.

In 1828, when Elizabeth had been teaching black girls for 10 years, Father Joubert suggested to her that they start a religious community of black women with the mission of educating black women. Elizabeth agreed. She and three other Haitian women became the founders of the Oblate Sisters of Providence.

Elizabeth took the religious name of Mary. After the other women elected Elizabeth as the first superior, she was called Mother Mary the rest of her life.

With the help of the four women, Father Joubert wrote the constitution and rules for the new community. Baltimore Archbishop James Whitfield approved them 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. They had to endure insults and 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 parents of their students and from the sale of needlework, sewing, mending and working as laundresses at St. Mary’s Seminary and Loyola College.

Even ecclesiastical superiors refused to help. After Archbishop Whitfield, no other archbishop during Mother Mary’s lifetime supported the community. One of them even suggested that the sisters disband and return to the lay state.

However, they did have some supporters. After Father Joubert died in 1843, the Redemptorist Fathers became chaplains to the sisters in 1847. Redemptorist Father John Neumann, who would later become Archbishop of Philadelphia and a canonized saint, traveled to Baltimore four times a year to serve as the sisters’ confessor.

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

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