Dozens of manumission papers, documents that testify to the freeing of a slave, lay strewn on the table in the archives at the Baltimore motherhouse of the Oblate Sisters of Providence. I was visiting their archivist, Reginald Gerdes, O.S.P., to learn more about this remarkable order of African-American women, the first of its kind in the world, which is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year. The congregation owes its origins to a French-speaking woman of color who fled the revolutionary upheavals of Hispaniola, the island now shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, early in the 19th century.
The woman, Sister Reginald explained, was Elizabeth Clarisse Lange, who, after a time in Cuba, moved north to Baltimore, Md., where she settled among other transplants from Hispaniola. A devout Catholic, she wanted to begin a school for girls, for whom there were almost no educational opportunities. She succeeded in starting the school in her own rented home in the Fells Point section of the city. It was the first school for African-American Catholic children. Mother Lange, as she came to be known, was aided in this venture by another émigré from Hispaniola, a Sulpician priest named Jacques Joubert. He encouraged her work with the school and taught its catechism classes. The school grew, moved and continues today as the St. Frances Academy, located in a poor section of Baltimore near the Maryland State Prison.
Mother Lange’s deepest hope, however, one shared by Father Joubert, was to found a religious order for African-American women. Having received the necessary but reluctantly given ecclesiastical approvals, the congregation came into existence in 1829 when Mother Lange and three other women took the religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. A number of the manumission documents I saw referred to young women who, upon being officially granted their freedom, entered the congregation as novices. One folder, for example, contained the manumission certification papers of a Mary West, who in religious life took the name of Sister Ellen Joseph. It was painful to read them, because they brought to startling life a period in the nation’s history when men, women and children were bought and sold as chattels. Sister Reginald observed that on Pratt Street in downtown Baltimore, not far from where we sat, were the former slave pens, now the site of the city’s elaborate sports stadium.
The 1830 document described Mary West as “a bright mulatto girl, aged about 21, five feet two inches high, having a large scar on her left arm, occasioned by a burn.” Distinguishing physical marks like the scar are frequently noted in the manumission papers, and they underscore the dehumanization involved in the buying and selling of human beings. But the description goes on to assert that Mary was now “a free woman and became entitled to her freedom by virtue of a deed of manumission” from her owner, A. P. West, who, as was the custom of slave owners, had imposed his own last name on Mary.
These documents served as identity papers, somewhat like the green cards carried by immigrants today. Before the Civil War, African-Americans in Baltimore could be stopped on the street and challenged as to their status, much the way immigrants in a number of states can now be stopped by police officers. Without proof of their freedom, they could be detained and sold back into slavery or returned to former owners, who might be searching for them if they had escaped from other parts of the South.
Father Joubert sometimes found himself in the anomalous position of being both slave owner and seller. One document, written in his own hand, certifies that he “sets free from bondage my negro girl Angelica Gideon, who is about fourteen years of age.” But his action was, in fact, a maneuver to circumvent the slavery system. He had purchased Angelica and then freed her in order to ensure that she could attend the St. Frances Academy as a free African-American child. His act thus forestalled any possible questions as to her status as free or slave. Later Angelica entered the congregation as Sister Mary Angelica. Of the 40 young African-American women who joined the oblates prior to the Civil War, eight had been, like her, legally viewed as slaves. In her book about this religious community, Persons of Color and Religious at the Same Time (2003), Diane Batts Morrow explains that in some cases—and probably in Angelica’s—the girls “inherited their grandmothers’ slave status, and Joubert had bought their freedom to avoid legal difficulties.”
Even with the support of Father Joubert, the going for the new congregation was anything but smooth. The concept of an order of African-American sisters—one that had the boldness to begin a school for African-American girls—was so far from the view of nuns then held by most Catholics in Baltimore that the oblates often heard racist slurs as they moved about the streets in their simple black habits. Their burdens were increased by financial struggles. Despite these struggles, however, besides accepting students whose free black parents could afford the modest fees, the sisters also took in a number of orphans for whom they received no financial support—called “children of the house.” To supplement their income, the sisters performed various domestic duties at the Sulpician seminary, a step not easily taken, because they wanted to be seen as what they were—religious, not servants.
With the death of Father Joubert 15 years after the order’s founding, the archbishop at the time saw little point in continuing its apostolate of educating African-American children. The future of the congregation seemed in doubt. But St. Frances Academy not only survived; it grew and now maintains a coed student body of 300, still in its 19th-century location on East Chase Street in the eastern part of the city. Mother Lange’s bedroom is preserved there, a simple one with only the most basic furniture—a metal bedstead, a washstand with a pitcher, a chair with an open Bible. The room is a living evocation of the simplicity and prayerfulness of her life as a vowed religious.
Although today’s students at the academy are what Sister Reginald described as average, over 90 percent go on to college, with a graduation rate there of over 80 percent. Ironically, one of the greatest threats to the academy’s survival came in the mid-20th century, when Baltimore’s public schools became racially integrated. “Once integration came in, black children could go to any school they wanted, so our enrollment at St. Frances fell,” Sister Reginald said. By the early 1970’s, the congregation was on the point of closing it. “But some of us got a group together to oppose that decision,” she observed, adding: “We felt you just don’t close a school started by your foundress.” The group’s efforts paid off, and in 1974 the school reopened, with Sister Reginald as principal. She said that in addition to the academy, the oblates have a foreign mission in Costa Rica, where there is also a house of formation. Some of the Costa Rican sisters work in Florida. Other oblates are engaged in apostolic work in Buffalo, N.Y. Most of them, however, work in Baltimore, both at the St. Frances Academy and in two local parishes.
In the meantime, the cause for Mother Lange’s canonization is moving forward. She has been recognized as a servant of God, the first step in the beatification process, and the Archdiocese of Baltimore has approved the positio, the documentary evidence relating to her life and holiness. Once the Vatican has accepted this, she can be called venerable. The vice postulator of Mother Lange’s cause, Sister Virginie Fish, says of Mother Lange that “she spoke to the world in several ways: as an immigrant, as an African-American and as a Catholic. These aspects of her life gave impetus to the many people throughout the world who, like her, are immigrants and people of color experiencing difficulties in their journeys,” difficulties that often stem from racism. Sister Virginie and Sister Reginald both emphasized the role of God’s providence, which, along with the charism of their foundress, has brought their community through almost two centuries of struggles in faithful service to those whose encounters with racism are far from over.