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Black Catholic foundress Mary Lange takes new step toward sainthood

Black Baltimore's saint-to-be may soon be declared "Venerable", according to the superior of her historic order of Black nuns.

Devotees pray at the tomb of Servant of God Mary Lange in February at the Oblate Sisters of Providence motherhouse in Baltimore. (Oblate Sisters of Providence/Facebook)

The sainthood cause of Servant of God Mary Lange has taken a step forward, according to recent comments from the head of the order of Black nuns she founded, the Oblate Sisters of Providence.

The news was announced on March 5 by Sr Rita Michelle Proctor, superior general of the Oblates, during the annual Mother Mary Lange Awards ceremony at the sisters’ motherhouse in Baltimore, Maryland. The Vatican has reportedly informed them that the cause's positio, the official document detailing Lange’s life and work, has been approved. It was sent to the Vatican in late 2019.

“I don’t want you to go and say Sister Rita Michelle has just gone and proclaimed Mother Lange a saint,” said Proctor at the ceremony, as first reported by the Catholic Review.

“Once they have concluded the review, it will be sent to Pope Francis.”

Lange’s cause, one of seven concerning an African-American Catholic, is currently at the first stage of the sainthood process, wherein a deceased individual receives the title “Servant of God” to indicate that official proceedings have begun.

Following an additional review of Lange’s positio by the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints and the go-ahead from Pope Francis, Lange could soon be proclaimed “Venerable,” as have been three U.S. Black Catholics before her. No African-American Catholic has ever been beatified, which usually requires Vatican approval of a miracle brought about by the sainthood candidate’s intercession. Canonization also requires a miracle.

Born to Haitian parents in the late 18th century, Lange immigrated to the United States from Cuba as a young adult and arrived in Baltimore in 1813. She was part of the early Black Catholic community in the city, one of the nation’s (and the American church’s) most historic locales. A devout, French-speaking Catholic of fairly substantial means, Lange would team with the Sulpician priest James Joubert to educate Black children in an era when such activities were still illegal in the state of Maryland.

Lange started a small school in her home with the help of a friend, and with Joubert the two later helped found an order of Black Catholic nuns, the first such permanent group in the United States. The Oblate Sisters became official in 1829, with Lange making history as the first African-American superior general in history.

The Oblates’ flagship school, St. Frances Academy, continues under their administration in Baltimore and is now in its 195th year.  The sisters were also responsible for catechizing the nation’s first known African-American seminarian, William Augustine Williams, who was taught in the basement of Baltimore’s St. Mary’s Seminary in the 1850s.

Lange died in 1882, and her remains were moved from a cemetery to the chapel of the Oblates’ motherhouse in 2013, where they remain as a place of prayer for the sisters and visitors.

Since the death of Lange, the Oblates have ministered across the United States and overseas, and continue to educate Black children in churches and schools while spreading the legacy of Mother Lange. She was inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame in 1991, the same year the Archdiocese of Baltimore officially opened her cause for canonization.

She has since become the namesake of a number of local institutions, including two Catholic schools, one of which has since closed. The new Mother Mary Lange Catholic School opened in Baltimore in 2021. A documentary film on her life and the order’s work in Cuba premiered recently from director Gloria Rolando.

This year, the 141st anniversary of Lange’s death, February 3, was celebrated with a special Mass at the Oblates’ motherhouse. The event also served as a rededication ceremony for members of her sainthood guild, which has members across the country.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger and a seminarian with the Josephites.

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