By Ralph E. Moore Jr.
There are no African Americans recognized as saints officially by the Catholic Church. During the global pandemic we are enduring it might seem odd to focus on anything other than it. But Baltimore City because of its other public health plague—unceasing crime and violence—could doubly use a patron saint, And who better than Mother Mary Lange, foundress of the Oblate Sisters of Providence to fulfill that role?
There are no U.S. African Americans officially recognized as saints by the Catholic Church, while there are 11 White American saints. What’s up with that? During the global pandemic we are enduring, it might seem odd to focus on anything else. But Baltimore City because of its other public health plague—unceasing crime and violence—could doubly use a patron saint or five. And who better than Mother Mary Lange, founder of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, to be among that number when Black saints go marching in that role?
Elizabeth Clarisse Lange was born in the French part of Santiago de Cuba 1794, died in her room at the convent-school she co-founded at St. Frances Academy in East Baltimore 139 years ago. The three other courageous sisters who stepped out on faith with her were: Frances Balas, Rose Boegus and later Theresa Almaide Duchemin (who left the Oblates and then founded the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters).
Mother Lange spoke three languages: French, Spanish and as little English as she could get away with, it has been said. She was a strict disciplinarian but welcoming of children in need of care, oftentimes at no cost to them. One biographer, Stuart Nicholson, wrote famed jazz singer, Billie Holiday, attended kindergarten at St. Frances Academy.
Mother Mary Lange lived a life of courage in the face of the social order and with unshakable commitment “to do God’s will,” she would say. Mother Lange and her colleagues in the order began teaching children of slaves to read the Bible in 1828 at a time when it was against the law and potentially punishable by death to do so. Her father was a merchant whose funds Elizabeth Lange used to start the school. Their little row house school in center city became what is East Baltimore’s St. Frances Academy, now 193 years old. The building, erected in 1837 is four stories tall and has housed an orphanage, a shelter for the elderly, a convent and now a co-ed high school, continuing to operate. It is the first African-American Catholic educational institution in history.
It is time for Mother Mary Lange to be canonized a saint in the Catholic Church. Her school has endured, the order of religious women she started has survived and her life still stands as a model for speaking truth to power and doing what is right without fearing the consequences.
Upon the deaths of Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa and Bishop Oscar Romero were put on a fast track for canonization called “santo subito.” They were not required to have died the usually customary too long period of time. And the historically mandatory evidence of miracles was not required of them. It is time that Pope Francis does his part to bring more racial integration to the heavenly acknowledgment of sainthood we know of here on earth.
African Americans endured almost 250 years of slavery, legal segregation for 100 years, mass incarceration initiated by President Nixon’s War on Drugs in 1971 (resulting in the highest percentage of minorities in jail in the world) and mass poverty since we arrived on America’s shores in 1619. The Catholic Church followed the leads of the government and practiced enslavement of Blacks and racial segregation in its churches, school, hospitals and educational institutions. And yet, again, there are no African Americans from the United States recognized officially by the Church as a saint in heaven. That is a very striking and off-putting fact. The Church leaders should have been calling for racial justice, instead church ushers refused to give weekly bulletins to Black and Brown congregants but collected church offerings, persons of color sat in the back of the church, upstairs in the balcony or downstairs in the basement, if let inside at all. Black Catholics waited until all the Whites received communion and then were served. There were religious orders of sisters who denied women entrance based on their race and the Baltimore archdiocese that admitted at one time, “we don’t ordain Negroes to the priesthood.”
Black Catholics are a minority within a minority. We are 3-5% of the 40 million African Americans in this country and therefore a tiny portion of the 75.5 million Catholics in the United States. It is hard to be seen and heard in such a minority but we must speak truth to power and remind the authorities here at home and in Rome that God loves everybody, equally (and it is our church, too).
Last year, the Archdiocese of Baltimore broke ground to build its first new Catholic school constructed in Baltimore City in 60 years. Smartly, fairly and appropriately it is named the Mother Mary Lange Catholic School. It will likely admit students whether they are Catholic or not and whether they can pay full tuition or not. Its existence and naming are a bit of a modern day miracle in our city.
We are urging persons of good will, irrespective of their faith to write to Pope Francis and urge him to canonize Mother Mary Lange the five other suitable U.S.African American candidates for sainthood: Pierre Toussaint, Henriette Delille, Augustus Tolson, Julia Greeley and Thea Bowman.as the first African American saints recognized by the Catholic Church. Please address Pope Francis as Your Holiness and write him at Saint Martha House, 00120 Citta del Vaticano, Vatican City or Your Holiness, Pope Francis at Apostolic Palace 00120 Vatican City.
The six African-American candidates will be honored on All Saints Day, Nov. 1, during a Mass at St. Ann Church at I p.m. The public is invited. St. Ann is located at 22nd Street and Greenmount Avenue. Bishop Bruce Lewandski, the newly elevated Urban Vicar-Auxilary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Baltimore will say the Mass. The choirs of St. Francis Xavier, St. Wenceslaus and St. Ann will sing. And letters to the Pope will be available in church for those interested in signing.
The Archdiocese of Baltimore is the first Catholic diocese in the United States. It is where Mother Lange, began to teach enslaved young students. It should be the leader in a Catholic reparations movement.
Pope Francis, a Jesuit priest, is the hope for correcting this oversight. He has created 899 saints since he became Pope in March of 2013. The United States of America elected its first African American president in 2008 and the Catholic Church ordained its first African American cardinal in 2020. It is time that the Catholic Church catches up with acknowledging our holy ancestors who are African American. If not now, when? It is high time for the Church here on earth to integrate racially its Communion of Saints.
Mother Lange’s courage, her constant dedication to helping others in need and her persistence in speaking truth to power are inspiring. She is a great historical figure and a great role model in the practice of her values. Despite the racism she faced, she moved forward to create a religious order for women of African descent. In the face of overwhelming poverty in her newfound religious order and insults to them during her sisters asking for help on the street, Lange kept going. And Mother Lange was a leader; she educated poor Black and Brown children when no one else would. She is a great African American hero, whether she and the other five Black Catholic candidates for sainthood are recognized by the Church or not. If the Pope will not declare their sainthood suddenly, then let the public acclaim as the early Christians did of the very first martyrs and saints, “We know they are in heaven!” And so be it.
Ralph E. Moore Jr., a member of St. Ann Catholic Church, is chairman of By Peaceful Means Peace Camp 2020.
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