Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange
Born Elizabeth Clovis Lange,in 1784, in the French Colony of Haiti, her parents fled Haiti before the revolution and settled in Cuba. Elizabeth and her mother came to the United States in 1817. By 1827, Elizabeth had settled in Baltimore, MD. At this time in history Baltimore had a large number of French- speaking people, some of whom had fled the French colonies in the West Indies. The French-speaking Haitians consisted of blacks and whites, wealthy and poor, educated and illiterate.
By the time Elizabeth settled in Baltimore and began her work, the Suplicain Fathers, also refugees from France, were caring for the spiritual needs of the Haitians and other French refugees. Unfortunately, religious activities, like social activities, were segregated. The Haitians of African decent had to meet in the basement of the Church. Elizabeth recognized the lack of educational opportunities for black children and especially black Catholic children.
While Maryland’s law did not actually forbid the education of blacks as some states did, neither was it encouraged. The only schools for blacks were inadequate and privately run. Elizabeth, along with a fellow refugee, Marie Magdalene Balas, opened a school for girls in their home, but money was scarce and the school had to close.
But Elizabeth found an enthusiastic supporter for her work in Father James Hector Joubert, a Suplicain priest. Not only did he encourage her educational goals, he also encouraged her and supported her religious goals. For Elizabeth desired to serve God as a consecrated religious. Elizabeth’s race would determine her next move, since only white women were admitted into religious communities at this time. So, with the approval of the Archbishop of Baltimore, Elizabeth founded a new community, the Oblate Sisters of Providence. Elizabeth and two companions began their novitiate in 1828 and made their first vows in 1829. Elizabeth became the Superior and took the name of Mother Mary Elizabeth.
Starting a religious community in the best of circumstances can be difficult, but Mother Mary Elizabeth had the added burden of being black. The new community had to endure scorn and contempt for the work they were trying to do. In spite of the hostility they encountered, the Sisters established a school for black children with money raised from members of the Haitian community, white and black.
As the school enrollment grew, Mother Mary Elizabeth looked for a larger building. Sometimes the rents on the houses were raised to dissuade the school from opening in a “white” neighborhood. Eventually, a friend of the young community sold them a house that was named Saint Frances of Rome Academy. The Academy is the oldest continuing educational facility for black children in the U.S. It was founded to serve the educational and spiritual needs of black children and became the first teacher training institute in Baltimore for black women.
Although their primary apostolate was teaching, the summer of 1832 saw the outbreak of a cholera epidemic. Mother and eleven of her sisters, along with other religious communities, volunteered to nurse the sick. When the city officials publicly recognized the religious communities who had volunteered their services, the Oblates were not included. Resented by many white residents of Baltimore, “the struggling but determined order” of Sisters persevered through good and hard times. During the 1840’s, the Sisters had to take in washing and sewing to help support themselves.
As the order grew, Mother Elizabeth oversaw the establishment of schools in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and St. Louis. Her order expanded into the Caribbean and Central America before her death in 1882.
Mother Lange’s cause for canonization was begun in 1991.