Mother Mary Lange co-founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence in 1829. The Oblates are the first sustained United States based religious order of women of color. The Latin word for oblate means one who is specifically dedicated to God or to God's service. Providence is defined as the manifestation of God’s care over His people. The Oblate Sisters were established with the primary purpose of the Catholic education of children.
The story of the founding of the Oblate Sisters of Providence involves two revolutions an ocean apart. The French Revolution inspired the Sulpician Fathers to seek refuge in America because Catholics were being persecuted in France. With Bishop Carroll’s consent, they opened Saint Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore for the education of priests. Similarly, the slave revolt in Haiti, inspired by the success of the French Revolution sent many white, free blacks, and slaves to Baltimore to flee the violence and turbulence on the island. The fact that Baltimore became a haven for the Sulpicians, and the Haitian refugees, each group a victim of violence and hatred, would bring the religious order into being. Among the refugees from Haiti was James Hector Nicholas Joubert, a Sulpician priest and two of the charter members of the Oblate Sisters of Providence. Father Joubert was charged to teaching some of the refugee children their catechism. He soon discovered that it was difficult for the children to learn because they were unable to read.
Joubert discovered two young women who had already begun a free school in their own home. The paths of Elizabeth Lange and James Joubert began to converge. Joubert, encouraged by the Archbishop of Baltimore, James Whitfield, presented Elizabeth Lange with the challenge to start a school for girls of color. While Elizabeth talked to Father Joubert she confessed that for over ten years she had wanted to commit her life to God and was waiting for His call. She then asked Father Joubert if they should start a women religious order too. He thought it over and decided it was a very worthwhile idea. Joubert would provide direction, be chaplain, solicit financial assistance, and encourage other "women of color” to become members of this, the first religious congregation of women of color in the history of the Catholic Church.
Thus, on July 2, 1829, Elizabeth and three other women [Rosanne Boegue, Marie Balas and an older student, Almaide Duchemin] took their vows. The first paragraph of the Rule was quite simple. “The Oblate Sisters of Providence are a religious society of virgins and widows of color. Their end is to consecrate themselves to God in a special manner not only to sanctify themselves and thereby secure the greater glory of God, but also to work for the Christian education of colored Children.” Elizabeth, co-founder and first superior of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, took the name of Mary.
These women demonstrated leadership and divine daring in the face of poverty, racism, humiliations and untold hardships. The sisters were role models who provided an atmosphere of faith and hope to parents and to children degraded by a slave society. In Mother Lange’s school, Catholics and non-Catholics were accepted.
The multiplicity of works undertaken by the sisters despite a shortage of personnel and financial resources gives evidence to the depth of their awareness, devotion, self-denial and desire to serve. The sisters educated youth and provided a home for orphans. They nursed the terminally ill during the cholera epidemic of 1832, sheltered the elderly and even served as domestics at Saint Mary’s Seminary in time of crisis. The absence of finances was not a deterrent. The sisters took in washing, ironing and mending to care for the “children of the house.” They made vestments, begged and borrowed so that solid virtue, religious and moral principles could be transferred as a legacy to the children.
By 1860, all of the catholic schools for “colored” children in Baltimore were taught by Oblate Sisters: Saint Frances Academy, Saint Joseph’s School for Boys and Saint Michael’s. Saint Frances had four schools under one roof: the academy for children whose parents could pay, the boy’s school, a free school for children whose parents could not afford to pay, and the orphans’ school. Funds for support of this institution were derived from tuitions, collections, concerts, entertainment, bazaars and begging.
The first two Plenary Councils in Baltimore figure into Oblate history in a very special way. Many of the bishops came to Saint Frances to see the colored sisters and to test the children. They were amazed at their knowledge and capabilities. The sisters were invited to conduct school in several places, to mention a few: Saint Louis, New Orleans, Washington, DC, Philadelphia and Kansas.
Mother Lange, with her spiritual daughters, have had many successes. But over the years they have also seen missions fail and schools close. They have seen hunger, cold, and loneliness take hold in the community. They have seen Redemptorists follow Sulpicians, and Jesuits follow Redemptorists, and Josephites in turn take the Jesuits’ place in ministering the affairs of the community. During the 20th century schools were founded in 15 states in the United States, as well as the District of Columbia. Six of their schools in Cuba were taken over by Castro. However, several of the Cuban sisters were available to begin ministry in Costa Rica where they have a House of Formation and teach in several schools. The Oblates have conducted schools from preschool through college. The have given witness during periods of social struggle by active participation for almost two hundred years of continual service to schools, day care centers, outreach and catechetical programs which encompass all age levels. They provide social and pastoral services to all ethnic groups.
Cardinal Keeler, Archbishop of Baltimore, put forth Mother Lange’s name to Rome to be considered for sainthood by the Catholic Church. At the present time she is referred to
as Mother Mary Lange, Servant of God. In fact, August, 1997, at the National Black Catholic Congress VII, attended by 3,500 people from across the country and abroad, Cardinal
Keeler devoted most of his address to the merits of Mother Lange. He stated that Mother Lange, with English being her third language, had the vision and courage to call people together
to work with her to begin to instruct people of African descent, the little ones, in a climate that was very hostile to such teaching. He stated that because of her wonderful life and
achievements he has taken the preliminary steps of pursuing her cause to sainthood. He announced that a number of documents have been assembled for review and he can take
the next canonical step—officially establishing an historical commission to analyze what has been gathered, to research availability of other documentation and setting up a special
tribunal. He said that this is a step that will mean a great deal as we look forward to the development of the cause of Mother Mary Lange. He invited the interest and prayers of all.
He ask that they do all that they can to become familiar with the life of Mother Lange and to share that information with others so that further steps may lead us forward in the
process of beatification of this heroine of faith.