The Oblate Sisters of Providence have one photo of their founder, Mother Mary Lange. It’s a tintype that’s been refurbished. They have two letters; one was likely dictated by her.
But the work of the founder of the first order for women of color in the United States continues to this day. The school she founded in Baltimore in 1828 to serve girls of color — primarily children with African Caribbean roots — today is known as St. Frances Academy, with a student body of young women and young men.
A Cuban filmmaker, whose mother was educated by the Oblate Sisters of Providence, is researching a film focusing on the Sisters’ time in Cuba (the Sisters arrived in 1900, and left in 1961, after Fidel Castro came to power). And group of Bay Area people who don’t want to see Mother Lange’s legacy lost to history is working to help provide funding for “Sisters of Hope,” Gloria Rolando’s film project.
Like the filmmaker, Margot Dashiell of Berkeley has a personal connection to the Sisters.
“My grandmother, who was born in 1871, was sent from Brownsville, Texas, to Baltimore to be educated by the Oblates at 6 years of age,” she said. In Brownsville, she said, “I don’t think they had many opportunities for education for African Americans.”
The understanding was she stayed there for six years,” Dashiell said. “Probably her mother was concerned about her safety while she worked.”
Her grandmother’s education with Oblate Sisters, Dashiell said, “laid the foundation for her literacy, her capability, her vocational skills later in life. With her husband she was quite a partner and anchor of the family, which set my father up for success.”
The local group has committed to raise a portion of the funds Rolando needs to complete her film, which is expected to cost $200,000.
Of the four, “none of us were raised Catholic,” Moore said.
“This whole story has made us fascinated by what went on in the Catholic Church,” he said. “We’re excited about learning.”
About Mother Mary Lange:
Mother Mary Lange, foundress of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, was born Elizabeth Lange around 1794 in Santiago de Cuba, where she lived in a primarily French-speaking community. She received an excellent education and in the early 1800s Elizabeth left Cuba and settled in the United States. By 1813, she was in Baltimore, Maryland, where a large community of French-speaking Catholics from Haiti was established. Lange recognized the children of her fellow immigrants needed an education.
There was no free public education for African American children in Maryland until 1868. She responded to that need by opening a school in her home. She and her friend, Marie Magdaleine Balas (later Sister Frances, OSP) operated the school for more than 10 years.
Rev. James Hector Joubert, SS, who was encouraged by James Whitfield, archbishop of Baltimore, presented Elizabeth Lange with the idea to found a religious congregation for the education of African American girls.
Father Joubert would provide direction, solicit financial assistance and encourage other “women of colour” to become members of this, the first congregation of African American women religious in the history of the Catholic Church. Elizabeth joyfully accepted Father Joubert’s idea.
On July 2, 1829, Elizabeth and three other women professed their vows and became the Oblate Sisters of Providence. Elizabeth, foundress and first superior general of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, took the religious name of Mary. She was superior general from 1829 to 1832, and from 1835 to 1841. This congregation would educate and evangelize African Americans.
Thus the Oblate Sisters educated youth and provided a home for orphans. Slaves who had been purchased and then freed were educated and at times admitted into the congregation. They nursed the terminally ill during the cholera epidemic of 1832, sheltered the elderly and even served as domestics at Saint Mary’s Seminary.
Mother Mary Lange practiced faith to an extraordinary degree. To her black brothers and sisters she gave herself and her material possessions until she was empty of all but Jesus, whom she shared generously with all by witnessing to His teaching. In close union with Him, she lived through disappointment and opposition until God called her home, Feb. 3, 1882, at Saint Frances Convent in Baltimore, Maryland.
Full story at The Catholic Voice.