The highest honor that can be bestowed upon an individual by their religion is sainthood. To become a saint means that an individual has lived a life worthy of remembering through the ages; a life that was devoted to the cause of helping others and holding faith in the highest regard. A saint is an individual who put worldly pleasures aside in the pursuit of a closer relationship with God, not just for themselves but for all those they could touch.
Such an individual is a true blessing upon this world. Elizabeth Clarisse Lange was just such a person and as the Roman Catholic Church considers canonizing her, the time has come to shed light on the work of this remarkable woman. Her story begins worlds away from the Vatican in a time that no living person can truly understand.
Elizabeth Clarisse Lange was born around 1784 (though census records are unclear and some believe she was born in 1794) on the island of Saint Dominque, which today is known as Haiti. Beginning in 1791 the native population of Haiti, along with slaves of African descent, began a revolution to free the island from French control.
Lange’s parents, her father a businessman and mother a Creole, possessed strong financial means and high social standing and feared the repercussions of the revolution taking place in Haiti. As a result, the family fled to Cuba in the 1790s. After roughly a decade of life in Cuba, Elizabeth would eventually seek peace, tranquility, and stability in the United States. She left Cuba during the first decade of the 19th century, eventually settling in Baltimore, Maryland in 1813.
Although she arrived in the United States with substantial financial resources, the result of inheriting much of her father’s wealth, Elizabeth had not come to the U.S. looking to live a life of prosperity. By 1813, the Haitian revolution had successfully come to an end, but thousands of French and Spanish-speaking Creoles from across the Caribbean had come to Baltimore and were struggling to survive.
During this time America remained a nation where slavery was an entrenched institution. In Baltimore, Creole citizens from the Caribbean meshed with freed slaves of African descent from the American south. Regardless of their ethnicity, these groups lived in relative poverty and lacked the opportunity to succeed in life. It was here that Elizabeth would find her calling and inspiration from God.
In these poor immigrants and freed slaves, many of whom could neither read nor write, Elizabeth saw the challenge of educating adults and children alike to enable their success and that of future generations. Using her own home and the financial resources left to her by her father, Elizabeth opened a school with the help of her friend Marie Magdeleine Balas. The two women spent the next 10 years offering free education to young black children from across Balitmore.
Elizabeth’s finances could only keep the small private school open for so long, and by 1828 the future of the school was in jeopardy. It was at this point in time that Reverend James Nicholas Joubert would be united with Elizabeth and her small private school. Father Joubert was from a noble French family that had fled the French Revolution, and through Haiti, eventually came to Baltimore.
Like Elizabeth, Father Joubert wanted to bring the Catholic faith to the children and women of African descent in Baltimore, but found their lack of education challenging. Together, Father Joubert and the two women opened the first school in Baltimore devoted to providing an education steeped in the Catholic faith to young women of color. The school opened in 1828 and was named the Baltimore School for Colored Girls.
At the same time, Father Joubert and Elizabeth were encouraged to open a Catholic mission for black women of faith. On 2 July 1829, roughly a year after the school opened, Father Joubert and Elizabeth founded the first order of African-American nuns in the history of the Catholic Church when Elizabeth and three other women took their vows. Elizabeth, who took the name Mary, became the founder and first superior of the Oblate Sisters of Providence.
The women of the Oblate Sisters of Providence set about educating and caring for young black children across Baltimore. What started out as a small mission in Baltimore expanded across the country and eventually around the globe. Through their strong faith in God and determination to education children of African descent, Mother Mary Lange and the Oblate Sisters spread the Catholic faith to thousands.
Mother Mary’s work didn’t end at simply educating and caring for children of African descent. The Oblate Sisters of Providence cared for those suffering during the cholera epidemic of 1832, opened the doors of their congregation to freed slaves, educating and sheltering them, and even cared for the terminally ill and elderly. Mother Mary worked constantly to bring herself closer to God.
During her lifetime, Mother Mary would eventually give all of her material wealth away to the congregation through her fierce determination to ensure the needs of others were met. After nearly a century of giving and working to become closer to God, Mother Mary Lange passed away on 3 February 1882. The room in which she died at the mission remains to this day a dedication to her life’s work.
Even now, 130 years after her death, Mother Mary’s efforts are still felt by thousands of Catholics of African descent. From its humble beginnings in Baltimore, the Oblate Sisters of Providence went on to open missions in 18 states across the U.S., Cuba, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and most recently Africa.
The very school that Mother Mary Lange founded still stands to this day, serving Catholic children of African descent in the Baltimore area. In the 1850s the school was renamed St. Frances of Rome Academy. In 1870 the school moved to its current location and become coeducational during the 1970s.
By the 1990s, the call for Mother Mary Lange to be considered for sainthood (canonized) had begun. Cardinal William Keeler, the Archbishop of Baltimore, officially submitted her name to Rome for consideration. To this day, Mother Mary remains a candidate for sainthood and has been granted the title “Servant of God,” indicating her name remains under consideration.
The achievements of Elizabeth Clarisse Lange are extraordinary taken upon their merit alone, but when viewed in the context of the period and place she lived they approach the miraculous. Elizabeth came to a city and country where slavery permeated half the region, and she arrived as a free, educated, black woman. In an English speaking country, a woman who spoke English as a third language behind French and Spanish established a school with the sole purpose of educating black children, and more specifically women.
Elizabeth faced those odds and more with compassion and determination. In a time when educating people of color was illegal in the United States, she opened a school and Catholic mission intent on bringing faith and education to all people of African descent.