Not Catholic? Neither am I. But when there's the potential for an interesting story in the telling, and the telling at the Surratt House Museum on a Saturday afternoon is only a short drive away, my ears are always willing to listen to the telling, because there's no telling what one might learn.
Her life story began in the slaughter and retaliatory slaughter of the Haitian revolution, when slaves, inspired by aristocratic blood dripping from the guillotine's blade an ocean away, rose up, farm implements in hand, and began hacking their way through a small forest of Frenchmen who blocked their path to freedom. Haiti was a jewel in an ever shrinking French empire in the western hemisphere and its loss would not only dramatically impact white slaveholders on the island, but investors throughout the ancestral home of Charlemagne and William the Conqueror. It was a twenty-year bloodbath, with both sides equally guilty of atrocities, that sent shivers throughout the southern United States, where American slaveholders sat on a powder keg of their own making and slept with one eye open listening for the sound of drums in the night.
Sister Mary Reginald Curtis, former principal at St. Francis Academy in Baltimore, the first and oldest school devoted to the education of African-American children in the country, related that most of what is known about Elizabeth Lange, the school's founder, is the result of an oral tradition that's been handed down from one generation to the next for the past 180 plus years.
Lange, a mulatto, was probably a child of privilege, certainly well educated, most probably by Catholic nuns, before she and her mother fled to Cuba at the height of the revolution. That seems to be Haiti's perpetual story; the rich and educated always taking flight when trouble or tragedy beckons. Personal safety certainly factored into the equation when droves of mulattos and slave holders fled the bloodletting and removed their few remaining slaves with them to neighboring islands. A large segment sought refuge in New Orleans, where the wines and guttural words rolling from tongues were entirely familiar. Significant numbers, encouraged by the beckoning hand of Bishop John Carroll, made their way up the Chesapeake Bay to call Baltimore their new home.
According to Sister Mary, Lange and her mother were forced to leave Cuba, possibly around 1815, and emigrate to the United States when they refused to take an oath of allegiance to the then ruling Spanish government. Lange to her dying day in 1882 would always identify herself as French.
There's speculation that mother and daughter first disembarked at Charleston and then journeyed to Baltimore, where they were absorbed into a large Haitian community of free blacks in the Fells Point section of that city. Historian Diane Blatts Morrow, in her history of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, states that Lange supported herself through a significant inheritance from her father, however in 1827 she began a private school in her home to educate refugee children from Haiti. Blacks would be entirely on their own for another forty years, as the State of Maryland would not provide support for their public education until 1868.
The Catholic Church took the lead in educating blacks in Baltimore. Rev. John Marie Tessier, pastor at a church for the city's blacks on Paca Street for 30 years, founded a lending library and religious society, all the while keeping meticulous records, which have subsequently proven to be a boon for both professional and amateur genealogists. Upon Tessier's death he was succeeded by the Rev. James Joubert, a former French military officer and tax collector in Haiti, who joined the priesthood in Baltimore. Joubert was granted permission in 1828 by the Archbishop of Baltimore to open a school primarily for the benefit of French speaking black children, but soon found himself wanting as an educator of young minds and learning of Lange's reputation offered her the teaching position. What he got in return was not only Lange, but three other black women willing to become brides of Christ and it was Lange, under Joubert's guidance, who conceived the idea of a religious order for black women.
Both the order and school were anomalies in a pervasive mist of overt racial hostility. Sister Mary marveled that Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange through sheer force of will and personality was able to do battle and persevere in the face of what she labeled the "four strikes:" Lange was black, she was a female, she was educated, and she was Catholic at a time when the majority of women were uneducated, Protestant, white, and subservient in a white male dominated society. Most of all, black women didn't don habits and join religious orders.
St. Francis Academy, which is now a co-educational high school and a basketball powerhouse, was supported through early financial support from the black Catholic community, fairs, sales of sewn clothing articles, and support groups. Significant, too, was funding from some of Baltimore's elite families, including the Chautards, also Haitian emigres and noted as pre-eminent medical practitioners, the McTavishes, and Dugans. Beginning with a small body of students, most of whom boarded in and were on financial scholarship, the school struggled through a number of relocations, once when the city of Baltimore claimed their building by eminent domain. By 1855 close to 300 crowded into classrooms. What drew students wasn't Booker T. Washington's vision of vocational training for blacks. St. Francis, instead, offered a palate of academics, art, music, including orchestra and piano lessons, religion, and training in the "household arts."
In spite of her deeply held religious beliefs and devotion to both the Sisters of Providence and the Church, Lange was every Catholic school child's nightmare come true. Blatts Morrow described her as a strict disciplinarian and hints that she dispensed severe punishment to the wayward or disobedient. While children feared her, so did her own mother, who, as a resident, in what could probably be labeled a retirement home for the elderly run by the order, called her "mistress." Christian charity and self sacrifice reigned, though, when the Sisters helped to nurse city residents during a cholera epidemic.
Today there are 75 women who wear the habit of the Oblate Sisters of Providence. Most residing in the United States, according to Sister Mary, are advanced in age. The Order's future and home of its youngest members seems to lie in Costa Rica. There is also a movement afoot that has petitioned the Vatican to canonize Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange. If this comes to fruition, which Sister Mary is hopeful will occur in her lifetime, Lange would be the first African-American female to be so designated.