(aka Mother Mary Lange of the Oblate Sisters of Providence)
Born circa 1784- died February 3, 1882
We do not know very much about Elizabeth Lange’s early life. Recent research points to Santiago de Cuba as her birthplace. Most likely she grew up in the French speaking area of the city. Because she was well educated we believe that she came from a family of some means and social standing. In the early1800’s young Elizabeth left Cuba to seek peace and security in the United States. Providence directed her to Baltimore, Maryland where great influxes of French-speaking Catholic refugees from the Haitian Revolution were settling.
By 1813 Elizabeth Lange was living in Baltimore. She was a courageous, loving and deeply spiritual woman. She came as a strong, independent thinker and doer.
It did not take Lange long to recognize that the children of her fellow Caribbean immigrants needed education. She was determined to respond to that need in spite of being a black woman in a slave state long before the Emancipation Proclamation. She used her own money and home to educate children of color. Elizabeth, with a friend, Marie Magdelaine Balas, offered free education to children in their home in the Fells Point area of the city.
Early in 1828 Providence intervened through the person of Reverend James Hector Joubert, S.S. who, encouraged by Archbishop 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. Fr. Joubert would provide the direction, solicit financial assistance and encourage other “women of colour” to become members of this, the first congregation of women of African heritage. Elizabeth joyously acquiesced. But how was this to be? Black men and women could not aspire to religious life at that time. But now God was providing a way! On July 2, 1829, Elizabeth and three other women pronounced promises of poverty, chastity, and obedience to Archbishop Whitfield and the chosen superior.
Elizabeth, founder and first superior of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, henceforth was known as Sister Mary. She served the Oblates in many ways. She was superior general from 1829 to 1832, and again from 1835 to 1841. She helped to nurse the sick during the Cholera Epidemic in the early 1830s and in the mid 1840s, when Sister Frances died, she took her place working as a domestic at Saint Mary’s Seminary, and from 1850 – 1860 she was the novice mistress for the fledgling Oblate order.
Mother Mary’s early life had prepared her well for the turbulence that followed the death of Fr. Joubert. She suffered violence of soul as she was buffeted by poverty and racial injustice. There was a sense of abandonment at the dwindling number of pupils and defections of her closest companions and co-workers. Yet, through it all Mother Mary never lost faith in Providence.
Mother Mary Lange practiced faith to an extraordinary degree. In fact, it was her deep faith which enabled her to persevere against all odds. To her black brothers and sisters she gave of herself and her material possessions until she was empty of all but Jesus, whom she shared generously with all by being a living witness to his teaching. Mother Lange’s life was a long one. She lived to celebrate the golden anniversary of the order. Mother Mary Lange practice faith to an extraordinary degree. In fact, it was her deep faith which enabled her to persevere against all odds. She is an example of how we may all aspire to be. In close union with her God, she lived through disappointment and opposition until God called her to himself February 3, 1882. .
In 1991 William Cardinal Keeler, the then Archbishop of Baltimore, with the approval of Rome, officially opened formal investigation into her life of union with God and works of charity which could lead to her canonization as saint in the Catholic Church.
”What were the works of Mother Mary Lange? We know of her private school in the early 1800s, of her academy in 1828 and of her religious foundation in 1829. But, there was also an orphanage, a widow’s home, spiritual direction, religious education classes and vocational training. The early Sisters did home visiting and conducted night schools so black adults could learn to read and write. When the Civil War was over, Baltimore was flooded with black war orphans. Mother Mary gathered 60 of them and began a new era of caring for destitute children. She was a religious pioneer.” (Sr. Reginald Gerdes, OSP, What We Have Seen and Heard, pg # 81).