It’s a safe bet that “Mother Mary Lange” is not a household name in most U.S. Catholic circles. That unhappy state of affairs may change, though, thanks to a courageous initiative now underway in Baltimore, one of America’s most troubled cities.
Who was the Servant of God Mother Mary Lange, O.S.P.?
A few years after her birth on the island of Hispaniola, the child christened Elizabeth Clarisse Lange was taken by her parents to Santiago de Cuba, as the family fled the chaos of the 1791 Haitian Revolution. Emigrating to the fledgling United States, Elizabeth seems to have lived in Charleston and Norfolk before settling in Baltimore, which had a considerable free African-American population whose numbers were being increased by refugees from Francophone Haiti. After opening a school for black children in her Fells Point home near Baltimore harbor, Elizabeth, guided by a French Sulpician priest, Father James Joubert, discerned a vocation to the consecrated life: she would help found a religious community for women of African descent, dedicated to the education of African Americans.
Archbishop James Whitfield approved, and on July 2, 1829, Elizabeth Clarisse Lange took her first vows and, with three other “free women of color” (as they were known in those days), created the Oblate Sisters of Providence. Taking the religious name “Sister Mary,” Lange became the community’s first superior and led the new order in founding schools for girls, homes for widows and orphans and vocational training centers for women. Risking their lives and the future of their community during a cholera epidemic in 1832, four of the sisters, including Mother Lange, nursed plague victims. Mother Mary Lange later served her community as a longtime novice mistress and, we may assume, role model, before her death in 1882.
Over a century later, in response to the longstanding local veneration of this remarkable woman, the Archdiocese of Baltimore initiated a formal study of Mother Mary Lange’s heroic virtues, and the cause for her beatification was opened in Rome in 2004. It’s successful completion, and indeed Mother Lange’s subsequent canonization, would be entirely welcome. Meanwhile, her example is being embodied in the first Catholic school opened in Baltimore city in 60 years, as the Mother Mary Lange Catholic School welcomed its first 400 students in late August.
The archdiocese raised more than $25 million to launch this state-of-the-art facility for some of the city’s most underprivileged youngsters. Partnerships with local universities, businesses, nonprofit organizations and social service agencies will enhance the school’s academic excellence with extended-care, summer and enrichment programs. Unlike too many modern inner-city schools, which look more like bunkers or prisons, the Mother Mary Lange School was designed to be open to the hard-pressed neighborhoods of West Baltimore, better known as the locale for many of the urban depredations depicted in “The Wire.” As Alisha Jordan, the new school’s principal, put it, “When you come into this building, there are so many rooms and windows where you can see out into the community. I think that’s what (Mother Lange) would have wanted.” True enough, I think, as Mother Lange would also have applauded the fact that 80-90 percent of the school’s students, who come from 70 zip codes and are 80 percent non-Catholic, will receive generous tuition assistance—and religious education.
When the bishops of the United States mandated a nationwide Catholic school system at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884, they probably didn’t realize that they were underwriting the most successful anti-poverty program in U.S. Catholic history — and arguably in American history. Today, inner-urban Catholic schools are a lifeline for children whose futures are being put at even greater risk by failing government schools and hidebound teachers’ unions that resist educational reform while engaging in various forms of ideological indoctrination. That lifeline is being threatened by the financial pressures on many dioceses, and while vigorous efforts are under way throughout the country to save inner-city Catholic schools, the pandemic has made a difficult situation even harder.
It takes vision, courage and faith to launch a multi-million-dollar adventure in top-flight inner-urban Catholic education under these circumstances: the kind of vision, courage and faith that led a poor black immigrant to start a new religious order for African-American women in the antebellum South; the kind of vision, courage and faith that has now led to the opening of the well-named Mother Mary Lange Catholic School in Baltimore, my beloved, if hard-pressed, hometown.