Oblate Sisters celebrate homecoming of a possible saint

From the prayer book she carried to the flower petals she kept pressed inside its pages, Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange has long been a vivid presence at the headquarters of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the order of African-American Catholic nuns she founded in Baltimore in 1829.

Now pilgrims and worshippers can get even closer to Lange. As part of a campaign to have her declared a saint, church officials received and reinterred her remains at the order's mother church in Relay on Monday.

"This is a homecoming for her," said Archbishop William E. Lori, who presided over the formal ceremony before a full house of nearly 300, "though we believe her real home is in heaven. I'm convinced of this cause of her sainthood, and this [event] is a sign that process is moving forward."

Lori wrote the Vatican in April to ask that Lange's remains be moved from New Cathedral Cemetery in West Baltimore, where they had been since Lange's death in 1882, to the order's current mother church, Our Lady of Mount Providence.

The Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the church panel that oversees the canonization process, assented in early May. Remains including Lange's skull and a rosary were exhumed May 28.

Lange was born Elizabeth Clarissa Lange in the Caribbean during the 1790s. She arrived in Baltimore in about 1812 with others fleeing war-torn Haiti.

At a time when nearly 4,000 slaves were still living in Baltimore — and it was still against the law to educate African-American children — Lange and a fellow refugee operated a school for black children out of Lange's house for about 10 years.

The school became St. Frances Academy, still the nation's oldest continuously operating Catholic school established for black children, in 1828. A year later, Mother Lange and three other women took their vows of sisterhood and founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first successful Roman Catholic order ever established by women of African descent.

The order's original Rule described the Oblate Sisters of Providence as "a religious society of virgins and widows of color" and declared one of its aims "to work for the Christian education of colored children."

The sisters educated youth, provided a home for orphans and nursed the sick during the cholera epidemic of 1832, sometimes begging in the streets to finance their various missions.

"She overcame so many obstacles," said Sister Mary Alexis Fisher, current superior general of the sisterhood. "She founded the order [34 years] before the Emancipation Proclamation. She had to deal with racism. She was a woman and a foreigner. Yet she cared so much and was so strong. That's why we're still here today, after" 184 years.

Forty-eight sisters live at the motherhouse, which was built in 1961, and about 40 live elsewhere, including in Buffalo, N.Y., Miami and Costa Rica.

The case for Lange's sainthood began in 1991, when the Vatican started investigating her works of charity. Cardinal William H. Keeler, then archbishop of Baltimore, closed that inquiry in 2004, signing documents to be sent to Rome.

The Vatican official overseeing Lange's case, Brother Reginald Cruz, said when a religious figure is under consideration for sainthood, local church officials do what they can to make his or her remains more accessible to worshippers.

Cruz is well along in writing the positio for Lange, an 800-page thesis that argues she lived a life of "heroic virtue." If and when that meets Vatican approval, the next step would be to document two miracles attributed to Lange.

At the ceremony, where Sister Mary Alexis urged pilgrims to come and visit, most seemed to feel she had already achieved that, and then some.

"We all know that Mother Mary's a saint," the superior general said. "We want the world to know it, too."




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