These days, to be sure, come with heavy burdens, in particular the continued threat of the coronavirus pandemic and the persistence of systemic racism. It is a good time for us to remember the blessing we have here in Baltimore by turning to Servant of God, Mother Mary Lange, as never before. By recalling her life and by seeking her prayers, we also need to lift up her cause for beatification and sainthood. For Mother Lange’s holiness and heroic virtue speak powerfully to the times in which we live.
Mother Lange was a free black religious sister, the founder of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, and a pioneer Catholic educator. Elizabeth Clarisse Lange was born circa 1794 into a French-speaking community in Santiago de Cuba to parents of African descent. Well-educated, she left Cuba in the early 1800s and immigrated to the United States. She came first to Charleston, S.C., then to Norfolk, Va., and finally, in 1812, to Baltimore. Here in Baltimore, she encountered a sizable French-speaking Afro-Caribbean population, some of whom were free while others remained enslaved.
At the time, public schools in Baltimore did not admit children of color. So Elizabeth, together with her friend, Marie Magdaleine Balas, opened a school for them in her home in Fells Point. In the meantime, Father James Hector Nicholas Joubert, a Sulpician priest, recruited Elizabeth and Marie to open a school for girls. In 1828, they opened St. Frances School for Colored Girls (later to be named St. Frances Academy), a school that continues to thrive as the oldest continuously operating black Catholic school in the U. S.
At the same time, these women felt called to consecrate their lives to God. With the blessing of Archbishop James Whitfield, in 1829 the Oblate Sisters of Providence were established. Since then, they have opened schools for African-American students in 25 cities in the U.S. and beyond. Today, our own St. Frances Academy admits students from a multitude of cultural and economic backgrounds.
Such is the barest outline of Mother Lange’s pioneering life and legacy. Yet, we cannot adequately tell her story and that of her sisters without focusing on the hardships they experienced. They experienced great poverty; at one point, Mother Lange worked as a domestic to bring in money. They experienced racism. More than once, Mother Lange was told to shut down the Oblate
Sisters of Providence; she bravely resisted. They also lived through Baltimore’s cholera epidemic of 1832. Mother Lange and her sisters heroically ministered to the needs of the sick.
Mother Mary Lange does indeed speak powerfully to our times. As we continue to struggle with the coronavirus and its disproportionate effect on the African American and Latino communities, Mother Lange inspires us by her personal, loving service to the victims of the cholera outbreak. She teaches us to get involved, not only in serving the needs of the underserved, but also in working to improve the living conditions in Baltimore’s most challenged neighborhoods. As we continue to struggle with the sin and heresy of racism, Mother Lange’s char-ity, courage and persistence – from her time here on earth to her place now in eternity – call upon us to work together, to eliminate racism from our society – and also from our church.
It is not enough, though, for us to claim Mother Lange as our champion. We need to imitate her example. One way to do this is by participating in an initiative recently launched in the Archdiocese of Baltimore (see pages 5–6). A series of facilitated conversations on racism will be conducted in parishes and institutions across the archdiocese. These conversations will be based on my pastoral reflection, “Journey to Racial Justice,” and will aim at real change at all levels in the church’s life. I hope you will join in those conversations. I also hope you will join me in entrusting this effort to the intercession of Servant of God, Mother Mary Lange.
At the same time, we need to press ahead with Mother Lange’s cause. Much progress has been made but we have a long way to go. I urge your support for the Mother Lange Guild and I urge you to report favors you have received through Mother Lange’s intercession to the Guild at motherlange.org. May this great Servant of God pray for us and guide us toward a better and brighter day.
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