Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange
Founder and first superior of the Oblate Sisters of Providence
Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, educator and founder and first superior of the Oblate Sisters of Providence (Courtesy St. Frances Academy)
Elizabeth Lange was born in 1784 in Haiti, an island the Caribbean. Her parents fled Haiti during a revolution and went to Cuba, where Lange received her education. She came to Baltimore in 1813 and settled in Fells Point. Baltimore had a large population of French-speaking Caribbean Catholics. Lange, a well-educated free black woman in a slave-holding state, also had money from her merchant father. She saw a need in educating children of Caribbean immigrants and slaves, a practice which was illegal at that time.
Lange used her money and set up a school in her home with her friend, Marie Magdaleine Balas. They offered a free education, but after 10 years finances became a problem. Rev. James Hector Joubert, a Sulpician with the backing of the Archbishop of Baltimore Monsignor James Whitfield, came to the rescue. Joubert presented Lange with a challenge to found a religious congregation for the education of black children. Joubert would provide direction, solicit financial assistance and encourage other women of color to become members of the first order of African-American nuns in the history of the Catholic Church. On July 2, 1829, Lange and three other women pronounced promises of obedience to the Archbishop and the chosen superior.
Lange, the founder and first superior of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, took the name Mary. The Oblate sisters educated youths and provided homes for orphans. They nursed the sick and dying and sheltered the elderly.
Mother Mary Lange's deep faith enabled her to persevere against all odds. Lange was a woman of vision and selfless commitment. She personally took action to meet the social, religious and educational needs of poor women and children. Her influence is still felt today around the world where the Oblate Sisters of Providence minister to young and old alike. Their ministry is particularly felt in Baltimore at the St. Frances Academy.
Mother Mary Lange died Feb. 3, 1882. Cardinal William H. Keeler and the Oblate Sisters have campaigned for her canonization and the Vatican has this under study.