Servant of God Mother Mary Lange was an independent thinker and a woman of action.
There is a bit of confusion about where Elizabeth Clarisse Lange was born. She was most likely born in Haiti around 1790; it is certain that she grew up in Santiago de Cuba, which is considered her birthplace. Elizabeth grew up in the French-speaking area of the city and was well educated. Tradition holds that she came from a family of good social standing.
Beyond that, not much more is known of Elizabeth’s early years except for the fact she left Cuba to seek a new life in the United States. She eventually settled in Baltimore, where many French-speaking Catholic refugees from Haiti had settled. Elizabeth quickly recognized that the children of the many Caribbean immigrants needed education. A loving and courageous woman, Elizabeth translated her deep spiritual life into concrete actions.
Somewhere around 1818, Elizabeth and her friend Marie Madeleine Balas began offering free education to children of the migrants. They opened their home in the Fells Point area of Baltimore City and began teaching. They were Black women in a slave state and the Emancipation Proclamation was still 50 years in the future. Elizabeth used her own money for supplies and charged nothing for her services. Since free public schools would not be available for Black children until 1866, the poor children in the area had become recipients of a miraculous opportunity.
In around 1828 the archbishop of Baltimore, James Whitfield, inquired of Father James Joubert, S.S., whether Elizabeth Lange would consider starting a school for “girls of color.” For Elizabeth, this was an answer to her prayers. She confided in Father Joubert that she had been waiting for God’s call for more than 10 years. She asked if she could start a religious order and Father Joubert thought it was a fine idea. He agreed to provide guidance, solicit funds, and encourage other “women of color” to consider joining the congregation. Elizabeth was overjoyed.
There was one significant problem with their plans. The prejudices of the time in the United States meant Black men and women were not allowed to be part of, or even aspire to, a religious calling. Once again, the hand of God would be needed to grace those involved, mainly Archbishop Whitfield. Standing against the culture of the day, the Archbishop agreed to allow Elizabeth and three other women to take vows of poverty, obedience, and chastity. Thus began the order that is called the Oblate Sisters of Providence. From that point on Elizabeth Clarisse Lange was known as Mother Mary Lange.
Mother Mary worked tirelessly helping and teaching those who so desperately needed her and her followers. She was the Superior General of the order during the 1830s. She assisted night and day during two separate cholera epidemics, one in the early 1830s and another in the 1840s. She worked in domestic service and as the novice mistress as her newly founded order began to grow.
Being a Black woman and a nun, Mother Mary had to fight off hatred, poverty, and racial injustice. She never tired of fighting for those in need and lived to see the 50th anniversary of her order. Mother Mary Lange, aged and almost blind, was relieved of her duties in 1876. She lived another 16 years and passed away on February 3, 1882, at (it is believed) 92 years of age. In 1991, William Cardinal Keeler, archbishop of Baltimore, received permission from Rome to officially open a formal investigation into the life and works of Mother Mary Lange. She is now called “Servant of God,” in this first step toward canonization.
Servant of God Mother Mary Lange, pray for us.
By Larry Peterson, OSV News
Larry Peterson is a chronologer of saintly persons for Aleteia.org, where this piece first appeared.