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Mary Elizabeth Lange


photo of Mary Lange

Elizabeth Lange's parents were refugees who fled to Cuba during a revolution in their native San Domingo. Her father was a gentleman of some financial means and social standing. Her mother was a native Domingan. However, in the early 1800's, young Elizabeth left Santiago, Cuba, to seek peace and security in the United States. Providence directed her to Baltimore, Maryland, where a great influx of French-speaking, Catholic, San Domingan refugees was settling. Elizabeth Lange came to Baltimore as a courageous, loving, deeply spiritual woman. She was a strong, independent thinker and doer. Although she was a refugee, she was well educated and of independent means possessing monies left to her by her father.

It did not take Elizabeth long to recognize that the children of her fellow refugees needed an education. She responded to that need in spite of being a Black woman living in a slave state before the Emancipation Proclamation, where the education of slaves was against the law. She used her own money and home to teach Black children. For ten years, Elizabeth and her friend Marie Magdaleine Balas, offered free education until, inevitably, finances became a problem. Providence intervened through the person of Reverend James Hector Joubert, S.S., who, with encouragement from Monsignor James Whitfield, Archbishop of Baltimore, challenged Elizabeth to establish a religious congregation for the education of Black children. Reverend Joubert would provide direction, solicit financial assistance, and encourage other "women of color" to become members of the first order of African American nuns in the history of the Catholic Church. On July 2, 1829, Elizabeth and three other women pronounced promises of obedience to the Archbishop of Baltimore.

Elizabeth, founder and first superior of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, took the name Mary. She was superior general from 1829 to 1832 and from 1835 to 1841. The order pledged to educate and evangelize African Americans; yet they would always be open to meeting the needs of the times. Thus, the Oblate Sisters educated youth and provided a home for orphans. Freed slaves were educated and at times admitted into the order. They nursed the terminally ill during the cholera epidemic of 1832, sheltered the elderly, and even served as domestics at St. Mary's Seminary in time of crisis.

Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange practiced faith to an extraordinary degree. In fact, it was her deep faith which enabled her to persevere against all odds, including racial injustice and poverty. To her Black brothers and sisters she gave of herself and her material possessions. Mother Mary rose above the social and religious stigmas of her time. She was a woman of vision and selfless commitment. She personally took action to meet the social, religious and educational needs of poor women and children. Her influence is still felt today, particularly in the many communities around the world where the Oblate sisters of Providence minister to young and old alike.

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