Elizabeth Clovis Lange was the founder and the initial
"Superior-General" of the Oblate Sisters of Providence , the first black Roman
Catholic order to operate in United States. Mother Mary Elizabeth, as she was
known, was a towering figure in 19th-century educational circles around Baltimore,
Maryland, for over 50 years. Elizabeth was born in the French colony Saint Domingue,
to Clovis and Annette Lange in 1784. She migrated to eastern Cuba and lived near
the city of Santiago, Cuba. Because of the Haitian Revolution, she had to flee
eastern Cuba, coming to the United States in 1817 and settling in Baltimore in
Soon after arriving in Baltimore, she opened the first school for the city's French speaking immigrants using her inheritance in spite of strong attempts to discourage black education in antebellum Maryland. Elizabeth's persistent service to her church and help to the educationally deprived won approbation from Rome under Pope Gregory XVI to organize the Oblate Sisters of Providence Order.
Although she ran primarily an educational order she became involved in many needy community outreach programs. During the Civil War years, she also became local superior of St. Benedict's school in Baltimore and later spearheaded the establishment of other schools in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New Orleans. During 1880, she began the order's first mission school in St. Louis, Missouri. By the time she died, the influence of the Oblate order had extended across the United States, the Caribbean, and Central America. More than 100 years after her death there are attempts to make her the first African-American female to be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church.
A more detailed biography can be found at Baltimore City Community College: Social and Behavioral Sciences - Baltimore Bicentennial Page: Elizabeth Clovis Lange (c. 1784-1882)
Twenty-two vessels from the island of St.
Domingue anchored off Fell's Point near Baltimore, Maryland, on July
9,1793, with more than 500 black and white people on-board. All were
fleeing the Haitian Revolution. The well to do French speaking Black
Haitians would join the 15,800 black Roman Catholics already in
Maryland and bring new life to Black Catholicism in America. That new
life began with a Sulpician Priest, Father Jacques Hector Nicholas
Joubert, and Elizabeth Lange, a Haitian refugee
Joubert, who had been assigned pastoral charge of the refugees, soon discovered that the children had difficulty learning their catechism because they were unable to read French or English. The priest approached Lange, who had already begun operating her own day school, about establishing a teaching community consecrated to God in which the children could be taught to understand their catechism. Lange and another teacher, Marie Madeleine Balas, had already considered such an idea, however, and on July 2,1829, it was realized with the establishment of the Oblate Sisters of Providence.
The beginnings of most religious communities are difficult, but this was particularly true for the four original Oblates, Lange, the founder, and Balas, plus Rosine Boegue and Almeide Duchemin Maxis. The white residents of Baltimore were sympathetic to Southern attitudes and did not peacefully accept the formation of these Black women into a religious society, especially while some 400,000 of their brethren were enslaved in Maryland. One record reports that when the Oblate Sisters first appeared on the streets they were stoned by angry white residents. With encouragement from Joubert, however, they were nonetheless able to combine the activities of teaching and devotional living into a religious community. In their habits of black dress, with a white-collar and a large white bonnet for convent wear, they taught Black children arithmetic, English, penmanship, religion, and housekeeping. In a black bonnet and cape for outside wear they also tended to sick people outside the convent. The Sisters had a great influence on their students, some of whom became Oblates, while others went on to establish their own schools.
When Joubert died on Nov. 5, 1843, the order faced four desperate years. When it appeared that the church had deserted them, the Sisters took in washing, sewing, and embroidery to support themselves. Believing that the order would be disbanded, some of the Sisters withdrew in 1845. in 1847, however, when a Redemptorist priest named Thaddeus Anwander came to their assistance, the community began a resurgence and the order began to grow and flourish. During the Civil War years, a Jesuit priest named Father Peter Miller carried them through. Still later, the Josephite fathers helped to solidify the struggling but determined order.
the Oblates proved that virtue and intelligence know no race, sanctity heeds no color, and determination has no end. They demonstrated courage and tenacity in perilous times and gave hope to their persecuted race. Most of all, they contributed to the history of Black Catholics in America.