Uncertainty surrounds the origins of Elizabeth Lange. She was evidently born in a French-speaking community in Santiago de Cuba, but immigrated to the United States as a young woman and settled in Baltimore, a city swollen by refugees of the Haitian revolution. Observing there to be no available public education for Black children in the city, Elizabeth and a friend opened a school in their home.
Later, she was asked by a Sulpician priest, Father James Joubert, to start both a school and a religious order for women of African descent—the first of its kind in the United States. Their primary mandate would be the education of “colored” girls. She gladly accepted, and in 1829, with the support of the archbishop, she and three others pronounced their vows.
Taking the name Mary, she became the first superior of the Oblate Sisters of Providence. Eventually, the sisters also opened an orphanage, a school for boys, and a home for elderly widows. They also nursed the sick during an outbreak of cholera. They faced constant financial insecurity. At one point, shocked by the sisters’ poverty, the archbishop ordered them to close their home, but Mother Lange refused.
Aside from hard work and hard-ship, the sisters also endured various expressions of overt racism—even from fellow Catholics, who were scandalized by the sight of Black women clothed in religious habits. Mother Lange died on February 3, 1882.
“We believe the suffering that has been intrinsic to our Congregation from its beginning enables us to reach out to others with tenderness and compassion.”—Creedal statement of the Oblate Sisters of Providence