St. Frances Academy
Mother Mary Lange (Elizabeth Clarissa Lange)
born circa 1784 - died February 3, 1882
Elizabeth Clarissa Lange's parents were refugees who fled to Cuba from the revolution taking place in their native Saint-Domingue, known today as Haiti. Her father was a gentleman of some financial means and social standing. Her mother was Creole. However, in the early 1800's young Elizabeth left Santiago de 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 Dominguois refugees were settling.
About 1813, Elizabeth Lange came to Baltimore. She was a courageous, loving, and deeply spiritual woman. She came as 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 long to regonize that the children of her fellow refugees needed education. She was determined to respond to that need in spite of being a black woman in a slave state long before the Emancipation Proclamation. She used her own money and home to educate children of color. For ten years Elizabeth and her friend, Marie Magdaline Balas, offered free education. In 1828, their efforts and resources helped to establish a school named St. Frances of Rome Academy, which today serves as a high school. Inevitably, their money would run out.
Providence intervened through the person of Reverend James Hector Joubert, SS who was encouraged by Monsignor James Whitfield, Archbishop of Baltimore, to present Elizabeth Lange with the challenge to found a religious congregation for the Christian (Catholic) education of black children. He would provide the direction, solicit financial assistance, and encourage other women of color to become members of this, the first congregation of women of African heritage. Elizabeth joyously acquiesced.
She need no longer keep locked up the deepest desire of her heart. For years she had felt God's call to consecrate herself and her works entirely to Him. How was this to be? Black men and women could not, at that time, aspire to the religious life. But now God was providing a way! On July 2, 1829, Elizabeth and three other women pronounced promises of poverty, chastity, and obedience to the Archbishop and the chosen superior.
Elizabeth founder and first superior of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, henceforth would be known as Sister Mary. She was superior general from 1829 to 1832 and from 1835 to 1841. This congregation would 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. Slaves who had been purchased and freed were educated and at times admitted into the congregation. They nursed the terminally ill during the cholera epidemic of 1832, sheltered elderly, and even served as domestics at St. Mary's seminary in times of crisis.
Mother Mary's early life had prepared her well for the turbulence that followed the death of Fr. Joubert. She suffered violence of soul as she was buffeted by poverty and racial injustice. There was a sense of abandonment at the dwindling number of pupils and defectations of her closest companions and co-workers. Yet, through it all Mother Mary never lost faith in Providence.
Mother Mary Lange practiced faith to an extraordinary degree. In fact, it was her deep faith which enabled her to persevere against all odds. To her black brothers and sisters she gave of herself and her material possessions until she was empty of all but Jesus, whom she shared generously with all by being a living witness to his teaching. In close union with her God, she lived through disappointment and opposition until God called her to himself on February 3, 1882. The room where she died at St. Frances Academy is dedicated to the memory of her good works.
In 1991 William Cardinal Keeler, Archbishop of Baltimore, with approval of Rome, officially opened a formal investigation into her life of union with God and works of charity, which could lead to her Canonization in the Catholic Church.