Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Mary Elizabeth Clovis Lange (c. 1784-1882)
MSA SC 3520-13580

Biography:

Baltimore was an up and coming city in the early decades of the nineteenth century, home to many diverse groups of people.  Although it was a place offering great opportunities to some segments of society, many individuals that made their home in the area were excluded by government and society.  Mother Mary Elizabeth Clovis Lange, upon her arrival in Baltimore in 1813, refused to be denied the prospects only open to the "priveleged" segments of society.  Though her life and work remains, for the most part, esoteric in our society today, she has been described as "something of a Mother Teresa of 19th-century Baltimore, helping the poor, the elderly and the young."1  Facing tough odds and even harm to realize her goals, Mary Elizabeth Lange became a pioneer in the fields of education and religion in Baltimore.  She faced discrimination on four levels: she was a free black in a slave state, she was a woman in a male dominated society, she spoke French in an English speaking area, and she was Catholic in a predominantly Protestant culture.  Meeting these challenges head-on, Mother Lange triumphed over her adversaries and founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence, an order that still exists today and continues its devotion to the education and welfare of children, women, African Americans, the destitute, and society as a whole.

Information about Mary Elizabeth Clovis Lange's early life is sparse and has been pieced together from the few documents that do exist.  She was born in 1784, in Santo Domingo, Haiti.  It is believed that her mother, Annette Lange, was a daughter of a Jewish plantation owner, and her father, Clovis, was a mulatto slave on the same plantation.  Lange and her family probably fled Haiti sometime in the early 1790s due to the Haitian Revolution and subsequent violence and dictatorships that ravaged the nation and its people.  Lange and her parents first went to Cuba, living there for three years, and then to the United States, arriving in Baltimore in 1813.2  In her first years in Baltimore, Elizabeth Lange was interested in pursuing a life devoted to teaching, which is indicative of the fact that she had received a relatively good education for a person of her stature.  Baltimore was home to a growing population of free blacks and creole refugees, much like herself.  However, the white population was hostile to these groups and prevented forms of social mobility, such as education, in order to maintain the separation between white and black.  Religion was undoubtedly very significant to the black population as many came from a Catholic background like Lange.  St. Mary's Seminary Chapel in Baltimore was the central place of worship for many blacks in the city.  It was established by the Sulpicians, who had emigrated to the United States to escape the turmoil in revolutionary France.  Significantly, its members were also of bi-racial origins, which helped them connect with the growing black population in Baltimore.3  However, the church still instituted separations between the white and black populations.  Blacks were forced to worship in basement chapels, and they had to receive communion after white parishioners.  In addition, many Sulpicians owned slaves, which indicates the prevalence of the strict social mores guiding whites and blacks during this time.  Realizing that Baltimore suffered from the same community divisions that her homeland, Haiti, faced, Elizabeth Lange decided to remain in the city in hopes of enticing change. 

Relying on her family's wealth, Elizabeth Lange resolved to educate black children in Baltimore.  Because of the racism of the times, schools were not open to black students, even those children of free African Americans.  Although laws prohibiting the education of Africans were not on the books in Maryland, as compared to other southern states, the schooling of blacks was not encouraged.  Some small schools existed for Protestant blacks, but none for Catholics or blacks of French-speaking origins.  Lange decided to focus on finding good educators to open a school for black Catholics interested in a parochial education.  Working with a fellow Haitian refugee, Marie Magdalene Balas, Lange began operating a small school for black girls out of her home in Fells Point.  However, by 1827, Lange and Balas were forced to close the school due to lack of adequate funds.4  Frustrated, but not discouraged from continuing on her quest, Lange sought out the help of the Sulpicians to extend greater education to black Catholics.  It was then that she met Father James Hector Joubert, a French-born priest and himself a Haitian refugee, who was receptive to the cause Lange advocated.  Joubert had long been aware of the problems of black education. While ministering to French-speaking Haitian émigrés, he came across the utter lack of literacy among the students, which prompted him to speak out in favor of schooling for blacks.  Joubert had tried to persuade white nuns to take black children into their classes to provide them with an education, but to no avail.  Upon meeting Lange, Joubert approached Archbishop James Whitfield to create an order of African American nuns, who would be instituted to provide an education for blacks.  Lange was interested in this proposal because she had  wanted to enter into the religious life, but found no order would accept her based on her skin color.5  There were many advantages to establishing such an order.  It would enable black women to enter the religious life when such opportunities had previously been barred to them, and it would provide a chance for many women, both white and black, to enter into the teaching profession, which was often-times restricted to them.  Finally, it would provide for the desperately needed education blacks deserved and longed for in Baltimore City.  Archbishop Whitfield was enthusiastic about the possibilities such a religious order held and approved its founding.  Excited with this unexpected, positive reception, Joubert and Lange quickly found other women who were interested in joining the order.  On July 2, 1829, Lange, along with three other black women, took the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience forming the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the world's first religious order for women of African descent and the nation's first black Catholic order, with Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange as superior.6

The Oblate Sisters of Providence, headed by Mother Lange, were able to quickly enact many of the goals they had set out to accomplish.  The black community of Baltimore, specifically Haitian refugees, were more than willing to provide financial support for the Oblates.  Establishment of a school was the primary concern for the sisters.  Just prior to taking vows, the Oblates had operated a very small school for colored children in a rented house on Paca Street in Baltimore.  The first students were French-speaking, but came from various social backgrounds.  In addition, realizing that three of the students were orphans, the sisters created an orphanage at the home.  By the end of 1828, the school had grown and needed to find a new location to accommodate the increasing numbers of interested children seeking education with the Oblates.  From its outset, the curriculum was comparable to ones at private schools for white children, indicative of both the level of education of the teachers and the desire of the sisters to bring an end to disparities between the white and black communities.  The school moved to a new neighborhood, which was far away from the presence of the Sulpicians.  Due to this distance, the sisters found, to their dismay, a growing sentiment of racism and opposition from the surrounding community.  In a Baltimore Magazine article, Dean Storm explains the profound animosity the sisters faced in this hostile environment: "In their diaries, the sisters worried about the possibility of being lynched for teaching colored children, or just for being a black woman with the audacity to wear a nun's habit."7  Although they faced dire conditions everyday, the sisters remained devoted to the education of blacks and the continuance of their order.  To make matters more difficult, the landlord of the house the Oblates rented, upon realizing the communitiy's resentment towards the black order and students, suddenly informed the sisters he had new plans for the property, forcing them to vacate.  Other houses in the vicinity also acquired very high rents, making it impossible for the Oblates to find a new residence nearby.  These difficulties help to paint the picture of the extreme racism the sisters faced for much of their early development.  However, the sisters ran into some luck when a benefactor of their order offered them property to use for the continuation of the school.  It was here that the sisters formally opened the Saint Frances Academy in 1828, due in large part to the fact that this new location was a more secure and permanent home for their order.8  Initially the school was open only to girls, but enrollment was extended to boys in 1852.  A growing student body and expanding avenues of care provided by the order necessitated the purchase of adjoining lots to provide more space for the Oblates.  Although the Oblate Sisters were experiencing a time of growth, financial troubles continued to plague the order.  The money Lange had inherited from her family was quickly dwindling, and outside support proved to be inadequate to maintain the development of the order.  In addition, they ran into hard times yet again when, with the death of Father Joubert in 1843, they lost their primary supporter.  The Sulpicians refused to continue their backing of the Oblates, and the Archdiocese of Baltimore demanded the sisters "return to the world," relinquishing their religious ties.  The rector of St. Mary's Seminary even requested the Oblates to come serve as domestics for the priests, to which Mother Lange responded, "As persons of color and religious at the same time, we wish to conciliate these two qualities as not to appear too arrogant nor miss the respect which is due to the state we have embraced and the holy habit we have the honor to wear."9  Not one to be deterred, Lange encouraged her fellow Oblates to take in washing, ironing, and sewing to support themselves and the various branches of the order's work.  In spite of the difficulties the Oblates faced, they continued to minister and provide for the surrounding community, black and white alike, and foster the expansion of St. Frances Academy, which was hailed as "a pioneer in the field of education in Baltimore for neglected 'colored' children and the earliest teacher-training institute in Baltimore for black women."10    

Although they faced years of adversity, the Oblate Sisters of Providence were able to find another priest to reinvigorate their demoralized group after the death of Father Joubert and the animosity directed towards them from the Archdiocese of Baltimore.  The sisters became well-known in the black community as pioneers in education, beacons of hope, and providers of healing.  Although they gained many supporters during the early decades of their existence, many Baltimoreans had ways of showing their disapproval of the order as well.  In 1832, the city was ravaged by a cholera epidemic.  The Oblate Sisters were among many religious orders that were sought out by the Bureau of the Poor to minister to the sick in almshouses.  Few in number, the Oblates consented and worked tirelessly to care for the sick and dying, losing one of their own to the disease in the process.  However, no official thanks from the city was ever received, even though the Sisters of Charity, a white nursing order, did receive public recognition for their relatively few efforts to help out during the outbreak.11  In addition, during the 1850s, anti-Catholic riots led by the Know-Nothings broke into a school run by the Oblates, forcing the sisters to suspend classes.  The mayor at the time did nothing to stop the attacks, making visible the sentiments of city officials towards the order.  The immediate dangers and lack of reverence paid to the Oblate Sisters continued throughout most of its early existence, and the fact that the sisters carried on in this environment is both astounding and awe-inspiring.  St. Frances Academy maintained its rigorous curriculum under the guidance of Mother Lange, who was convinced of the value of a strong, demanding education to nurture the children of the community.  The school grew, and the sisters instituted similar schools in other areas of the city and the nation including: St. Joseph's in South Baltimore, St. Michael's on Lombard Street in Baltimore, St. Elizabeth's in St. Louis, Missouri, and St. Augustine's in Washington D.C.  In addition, in 1836, St. Frances Academy added a new chapel, which inaugurated the first time American black Catholics had their own separate chapel for worship.12  In later years, Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange served as novice-mistress from 1851 to 1855 and as local supervisor of St. Benedict's School in Fells Point from 1863 to 1866.  The sisters followed the leadership and enthusiasm of Mother Lange and instituted new areas of care for the community.  They opened a widow's home, ran a bible school, provided vocational training, did home visiting, and conducted a night school so that adult blacks could learn to read and write.  Also, Lange and the Oblates began a new era of working with destitute children when the end of the Civil War brought about an abundance of black war orphans into Baltimore City.13

By 1871, Mother Lange's health began to deteriorate.  Although she continued to enjoy having children and fellow sisters visit her in her room and remained a financial advisor for the Oblates, she became less and less a visible part of the everyday functions of the order.  Lange joined in the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Oblates in 1879, but it was one of the last major events she was able to attend.  At the age of ninety-eight, Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange died on February 3, 1882, and was buried in Bonnie Brae Cemetery in Baltimore.14  Today, her legacy continues in the work of the Oblate Sisters of Providence.  St. Frances Academy is the oldest continuously operating school for black Catholic children in the United States and has become a safe haven and place of encouragement for children who grow up on the tough streets of inner-city Baltimore.  In addition, the Oblates run chapters in seven states, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic.  Although the order is currently facing a sharp decline in number as only ninety-five sisters remain, and, as a result, have been forced to drastically reduce the variety of services they are able to provide, the Oblates persevere and have taken up a new cause to bring awareness and support to their group.  Beginning in 1991, the Oblate Sisters initiated a campaign to have Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange canonized.  Though the process can take generations, the sisters have already made much headway and are confident that Lange's sainthood is imminent.  Canonization would make Mother Lange the first woman of color in the United States to be proclaimed a saint, an honor undoubtedly deserving for such a religious pioneer.  As it stands now, documents pertaining to the life and work of Lange have been sent to the Vatican and are pending review by the Congregation of Causes for Saints.  If the documents are accepted, then a positio, a single document, will be given to the Congregation for examination, and if also accepted, the title of venerable will be bestowed upon Lange.  Beatification is the next step in the long process, in which posthumous miracles performed by Mother Lange, must be documented and recognized by the Church.  After two such miracles, the Vatican will confer upon Lange the status of sainthood.  The first miracle will probably be submitted to the Congregation later this year, according to Sister Virginie Fish of the Oblate order.15  Mother Lange's ideas have been passed down through successive generations of Oblate Sisters, students, and individuals in the communities affected across the United States and internationally by the order she founded.  Mother Lange was a "woman of exceptional confidence and trust in God.  She had great generosity, courage and determination.  She loved the poor and was willing to see Christ in those around her and the prejudice and racial hatred never blurred that vision.  Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange is a real heroine of the church and a model of Christian life, the stuff of which saints are made."16           

Endnotes:

1.  McCraven, Marilyn. "A Saint from East Baltimore?" The Baltimore Sun, 8 October 1995.   return to text

2.  Breslaw, Elaine G. and Joan A. Andersen. "Elizabeth Clovis Lange, c.1784-1882: Black Religious Leader," Notable Maryland Women, ed. Winifred G. Helmes (Cambridge, MD: Tidewater Press, 1977) 208.   return to text 

3.  Ibid.   return to text

4.  Storm, Dean. "Waiting for a Miracle," Baltimore, June 1997.   return to text

5.  Chalkey, Tom. "Charmed Life: Soul Sister," The Baltimore City Paper, 1 December 1999.   return to text

6.  "Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange," Archdiocese of Baltimore, 2004.  http://www.archbalt.org/our-history/notable-people-detail.cfm?customel_datapageid_999=2243.   return to text

7.  Storm.   return to text

8.  Breslaw, 210.   return to text

9.  Rivera, John. "A Saintly Undertaking on Founder's Behalf," The Baltimore Sun, 5 February 2003.   return to text

10.  Stegman, Carolyn B. Women of Achievement in Maryland History (Maryland: Anaconda Press, 2002) 70.   return to text

11.  Sister Elizabeth Ann, S.J.W. "Elizabeth Clovis Lange, Mother Mary Elizabeth: Foundress of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, c. 1784-1882." Catholic Heritage Curricula, 2001.    http://www.catholichomeschooling.com/curr/am6.htm.   return to text

12.  "Our History," The Oblate Sisters of Providence, n.d.  http://oblatesisters.com/.   return to text

13.  Diggs, Louis. "Biography of Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, O.S.P." Louis Diggs, 10 October 2002.  http://www.louisdiggs.com/oblates/Biography.html.   return to text

14.  Cosgrove, Joseph. "Heroine of the Church: Mother Lange's Contribution to Maryland and the Archdiocese," The Catholic Review, 13 March 1991.   return to text

15.  Burris, Joe. "The Faithful," The Baltimore Sun, 2 February 2005.   return to text

16.  Cosgrove.   return to text

Biography written by 2005 summer intern Lauren Morton

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