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Oblate Sisters turn to technology


The very traditional Oblate Sisters of Providence are going high-tech.

With a $500 grant from the Baltimore County Historical Trust, the Catonsville-based order will catalog and photograph its collection of 19th-century artifacts for preservation on compact discs.

And the Oblates, founded in Baltimore in 1829 as the first order of black nuns, will join a growing number of religious groups embracing modern technology to preserve records and make them widely available to researchers.

"This will be not only a history of the Oblates but of how people lived during the 19th century," said Sister M. Reginald Gerdes, who heads the project.

Brother Dennis Sennett, archivist of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement in Garrison, N.Y., said at least 188 religious communities of different faiths around the country are establishing repositories for their records.

Brother Dennis, who founded the first group in the New York area and who conducts workshops on archival work, said Pope Paul VI started the movement among Catholics with a 1976 letter that urged the American hierarchy to collect and preserve historical documents.

The idea spread to individual religious orders when Sister Evangeline Thomas, a nun in Kansas, won a grant and launched workshops for religious archivists, he said.

"Imaging" -- which the Oblates plan so artifacts' pictures will be available along with textual descriptions -- is new and will be watched with interest, Brother Dennis said. "Computers are making the information instantly available."

The Oblates have a small but noteworthy collection at the motherhouse on Gun Road, and it is these pieces that Sister Reginald and Sister M. Reparata Clarke, the current archivist, are determined to preserve.

Particularly treasured are relics of Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, the Haitian woman who co-founded the first U.S. Catholic school for black children in 1828 and the order a year later.

In a vitrine at Gun Road, Mother Lange's prayer book, cane, religious pictures and saints' relics are preserved beside such personal items as eyeglasses, a tobacco pouch and watch fob that belonged to the Rev. James Joubert. The French-born Sulpician priest, who ministered to French-speaking Haitians in Baltimore, helped Mother Lange found the school and the religious order.

Mother Lange died in 1882 at the St. Francis Academy, 501 E. Chase St., the Oblates' high school. In 1991, the Vatican approved the order's request to begin the lengthy process that could lead to sainthood.

Other items include examples of fine needlework on altar cloths and a sampler done by a student in 1829, a hand-held mold for communion wafers and dolls dressed in the Oblates' various habits.

"This is a kindergarten step, but eventually we'll move up and out," Sister Reginald said, referring to the large quantity of documents that await computerized cataloging.

The Oblates' undertaking is important for any study of black Catholic history, said the Rev. Peter E. Hogan, a national authority on the subject and archivist of the Josephite Order in Baltimore.

"The great problem of black Catholic history is that so much was ignored," he said. "The black contribution was overlooked by writers who were seldom African-American."

To get a true picture of Catholicism among blacks, Father Hogan said, "You have to resift and re-evaluate the sources to see black Catholic history as it should be."

Sister Reginald's inspiration was "The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution," a book illustrated with objects and documents.

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