Mother Mary Lange, founder of first African American religious congregation, declared venerable

North Texas Catholic
(Jun 23, 2023) National-World

In this black and white picture, eighteen young girls are arranged for a class picture wearing black dresses with white aprons and two sisters border the group on either side

The Oblate Sisters of Providence was founded two centuries ago as a religious community for women of African descent. Their founder, Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, also founded a school for "girls of color." Credit: Oblate Sisters of Providence Archives.

VATICAN (CNA)- Pope Francis has advanced the sainthood cause of Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, a Black religious sister who founded the country’s first African American religious congregation in Baltimore in 1829.

The recognition of Lange’s heroic virtue and the advancement of her cause from servant of God to venerable was announced by the Vatican in a decree signed on June 22. The Church will now need to approve a miracle attributed to her intercession before she can be beatified.

Elizabeth Lange, as she was named, immigrated to the United States from Cuba in the early 1800s. Recognizing the lack of education for the children of her fellow Black immigrants, with a friend she established St. Frances Academy in her own home and with her own money to offer free schooling to Baltimore’s African American children.

With the support of Baltimore Archbishop James Whitfield, she founded a school for “girls of color” and then the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first religious community for women of African descent.

The congregation’s purpose was to provide religious and general education to African Americans. Lange and the other sisters also responded to other needs they encountered over time, including taking in orphans and widows, educating freed slaves, nursing people dying during the cholera epidemic, and cleaning at St. Mary’s Seminary.

In this black and white picture, Mother Mary Lange has a white hat on and sits near a window.
Mother Mary Lange. | Public domain.

Lange took the religious name of Mary and served as the congregation’s superior general for two terms.

Lange founded the Oblate Sisters more than three decades before the Civil War and its resulting abolition of slavery within the United States. Although Maryland supported the Union, it was a slave state when Lange arrived there.

“Mother Mary Lange practiced faith to an extraordinary degree. In fact, it was her deep faith which enabled her to persevere against all odds,” the Mother Mary Lange Guild notes in an online biography. “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.”

Lange died on Feb. 3, 1882, at the age of 92 or 93, and her cause for beatification was opened over a century later, in 1991, by Baltimore Cardinal William Keeler.

Today the Oblate Sisters of Providence have approximately 80 members serving in three U.S. cities and two cities in Costa Rica.

According to the current superior general, Sister Rita Michelle Proctor, the congregation continues to respond to the needs of the time as Mother Mary Lange did, “trusting in providence, loving all and seeing Christ in each person.”

Pope Francis also advanced June 22 the sainthood cause of Sister Lucia dos Santos, the eldest child to witness the Fatima apparitions.

In addition to Lange, Brazilian Archbishop Antônio de Almeida Lustosa (1886–1974), Italian Franciscan Father Antonio Pagani (1526–1589), and Italian Sister Anna Cantalupo (1888–1983) were all declared venerable in the decree, issued by the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Causes of Saints.

The pope also approved the martyrdom of Manuel González-Serna Rodríguez and 19 companions killed during the Spanish Civil War in 1936.

Hannah Brockhaus is Catholic News Agency's senior Rome correspondent.

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