Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange — a Black Catholic nun who founded the United States’ first African American religious congregation in Baltimore in 1829 — has advanced another step toward sainthood.
Under a decree signed by Pope Francis on Thursday, Lange was recognized for her heroic virtue, and advanced in the cause of her beatification from being considered a servant of God to a “venerable servant.” The Catholic Church must now approve a miracle that is attributed to her, so she can be beatified.
Lange grew up in a wealthy family of African origin, but she left Cuba in the early 1800s for the U.S. due to racial discrimination, according to the Vatican’s saint-making office. After encountering more discrimination in the southern U.S., she moved with her family to Baltimore. Recognizing a need to provide education for Black children in the city, she started a school in 1828, decades before the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.
Founding the Oblate Sisters of Providence and Saint Frances Academy
In 1829, she founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence — the country’s first African American religious congregation. They were trailblazers for generations of Black Catholic nuns who persevered despite being overlooked or suppressed by those who resented or disrespected them.
The Oblate Sisters continue to operate Baltimore’s Saint Frances Academy, which Lange founded. The coed school is the country’s oldest continually operating Black Catholic educational facility, with a mission prioritizing help for “the poor and the neglected.”
“She lived her virtuous existence in a hostile social and ecclesial context, in which the preeminent opinion was in favor of slavery, personally suffering the situation of marginalization and poverty in which the African American population found itself,” the Vatican’s saint-making office wrote.
Lange is among three Black nuns from the U.S. designated by Catholic officials as worthy of consideration for sainthood. The others include Henriette Delille, who founded the New Orleans-based Sisters of the Holy Family in 1842 because white sisterhoods in Louisiana refused to accept African Americans, and Sister Thea Bowman, a beloved educator, evangelist and singer active for many decades before her death in 1990.
The Significance of Lange’s Potential Sainthood
Pope Francis’s advancement of Lange’s sainthood cause “is a monumental step forward in the long fight for Black Catholic saints in the United States and for recognition for the nation’s long embattled African American Catholic community, especially nuns,” said Shannen Dee Williams, a history professor at the University of Dayton and author of “ Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle.”
Currently there are no recognized African American saints. Williams said Lange joins three other African American sainthood candidates who have been declared “venerable — Delille, Father Augustus Tolton and Pierre Toussaint.
Williams said only one Black woman has been declared a saint in the modern era — St. Josephine Bakhita, a formerly enslaved Sudanese nun who made “the extraordinary journey from slavery under Islamic auspices to freedom in an Italian Catholic convent in the late 19th century.”
“This is why Lange’s cause is so important and revolutionary,” Williams said via email. “There is absolutely no way to tell Lange’s story or the story of her order accurately or honestly without confronting the Catholic Church’s mostly unreconciled histories of colonialism, slavery, and segregation.”
Williams said that unlike most of their counterparts in religious life, Lange and the Oblate Sisters of Providence were not segregationists, and never barred anyone from their ranks or institutions based on color or race. Instead, Williams said, Lange’s multiethnic and multilingual order preserved the vocations of hundreds of Black Catholic women and girls denied admission into white congregations in the United States, Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean.
“Lange and her Oblate Sisters of Providence’s very existence embody the fundamental truth that Black history always has been Catholic history in the land area that became the United States.” Williams said,
Their story “upends the enduring myth that slaveholding and segregationist Catholic priests and nuns were simply people ‘of their times.’” Williams said. “Mother Lange and the Oblate Sisters of Providence were also people of those times.”