Oblate Sisters of Providence: The First Order of African-American Nuns

This post was written by former MAC Lab volunteer Lauren Morrell.  Thank you, Lauren!


Front: Written in French, “O MARIE CONÇUE SANS PÉCHÉ PRIEZ POUR NOUS QUI AVONS RECOURS À VOUS” (Translation: O Mary conceived without sin pray for us who have recourse to thee) around the Virgin Mary with rays emitting from her hands.
Miraculous Medal motif showing the letter “M” with a cross over it, and under both are the Sacred Heart of Jesus with a crown of thorns, and the Sacred Heart of Mary pierced by a sword. Courtesy U.S. Army Garrison, Adelphi Laboratory Center.

This miraculous medal — a medallion that many Catholics believe was inspired by the Virgin Mary — was uncovered at Blossom Point farm in Charles County, Maryland (18CH216). The farm was part of St. Thomas Manor, which was patented in 1649 by Thomas Matthews and Father Thomas Copley, who were members of the Jesuit community. St. Thomas Manor has been owned by the Jesuits since then. The farm was rented to short-term tenants after the Civil War and this medal, which postdates 1832, was probably owned by one of the tenants.

Maryland has a long history with the Catholic religion. Founded in 1634 by Catholic Lord Baltimore, the colony became known as the cradle of Catholicity (Pyne 2008). The first Catholic church in the English Colonies was constructed in St. Mary’s City in 1667 (The Chapel of St Mary’s City, 2019). By the founding of the country, roughly ten percent of Maryland’s population were openly practicing Catholics, of which nearly 20 percent were slaves (Pyne 2008).

Baltimore has the distinction of being the birthplace of a Catholic religious institute that broke both racial and gender social norms. The Oblate Sisters of Providence were the first permanent community of Roman Catholic Sisters of African descent in the world; their mission is to “renounce the world to consecrate themselves to God and to Christian education of young girls of color” (Posey 1994). The title, Oblate Sisters of Providence, was given October 2, 1831, by Papal recognition as an official Catholic organization.

The community began in 1828 when Elizabeth Lange, a free woman of color, and Father James Nicholas Joubert, a white Frenchman, bonded over their shared French culture, Caribbean refugee status, devotion to the Catholic faith, and their commitment to providing education to black children (Morrow 1997).

Elizabeth Lange was born in the Caribbean around 1784.


Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange

She immigrated to Baltimore in 1813, joining the growing community of free people of African descent. Baltimore, at the time, was the “free black capital” of 19th-century America, with a vibrant and involved community (Morrow 2000). Elizabeth saw a need to educate French- speaking children, so she and another Caribbean emigrant, Mary Balas, opened a school for children in their home (Morrow 2000).

Father Joubert came to Maryland via Haiti, where he was a representative of the French government when a slave uprising forced him to leave (Gerdes 1988). He studied at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, and was ordained a priest in 1810. In 1827, he began to teach the Catholic doctrine to black children in Baltimore. As a Frenchman, Father Joubert did not hold the prejudices of Maryland’s white slave owners, and instead ministered to the black Catholics as equals (Gerdes 1988).

Rev. James Nicolas Joubert portrait- Internet Archive- from Blossoms Gathered from the Lower Branches by an Obl

Father James Nicholas Joubert

Father Joubert noticed that Caribbean refugees were having a difficult time with their Catechism due to their inability to read, and was inspired to form a Catholic school (Gerdes 1988). When he had difficulty raising the funds, the Archbishop put him in contact with Elizabeth and Mary, who had expressed their desire to devote their lives to God (Gerdes 1988). The women and Father Joubert joined together to create the first Catholic school and religious order for women and girls of color (Gerdes 1988). The school began in a row house at 5 St. Mary’s Court, Baltimore, and was called the St. Frances Academy (Oblate Sisters of Providence 2019). On July 2, 1829, Elizabeth and Mary took their vows and became sisters, and Elizabeth was named the Superior.

Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, as she is now known, used her position within the church to realize her vision of educating the black community, who were considered unteachable, and to empower them to become productive citizens (Posey 1994).

The prevailing wariness of whites for educating free black people at the time was just as unfavorable as it was towards slaves, so the foundation of the Oblate Sisters and their devotion to educating young girls of color was nothing short of revolutionary (Morrow 2000).

At the time of the order’s foundation, the Catholic Church endorsed slavery. Several members of the American clergy actively participated and profited slavery, including John Carroll, the first Roman Catholic bishop in the United States, as well as his successors (Morrow 1997). Even communities of priests and nuns, such as the Jesuits, Capuchins, Sisters of Charity, and Sisters of the Visitation, owned slaves (Morrow 1997).

The Oblate Sisters of Providence faced opposition from the Catholic community over women of color wearing religious habits (Gerdes 1988). Even Father Joubert had been “amazed and mortified” by objections from his peers who would refuse to help Father Joubert assist the Oblate community (Morrow 1997).

For the first decade of the Oblate Sisters of Providence’s existence, racism reared its ugly head, from facing housing discrimination to not receiving the same recognition that white orders did for nursing cholera victims (Marrow 1997). However, the sisters accepted the outward signs of racism, and only returned to the convent when physical violence was imminent (Gerdes 1988).

Despite many obstacles, the Sisters received an outpouring of support from various orders within the Catholic faith, especially black women of Baltimore (Morrow 1997) when the order was forced to raise money and search for new locations in order to expand their school.

Unlike most public and private institutions at the time, the St. Frances Academy had a diverse student body, from various socioeconomic backgrounds, and from communities outside of Baltimore (Morrow 2000). The school welcomed Catholics and non-Catholics alike, and provided care for orphaned or homeless girls.

The sisters were fluent in French, Spanish, and English, and coursework emphasized the fine arts in addition to a traditional curriculum of reading writing, geography, and arithmetic (Gerdes 1988). Student enrollment was comparable to the schools for white girls (Morrow 1997).

Over time, the sisters opened more schools and orphanages in New Orleans, St. Louis, Leavenworth, Philadelphia and Latin America (Gerdes 1988). Over time, they began welcoming widows and elderly women to live in the convents (Gerdes 1988).

The Oblate Sisters of Providence and the St. Frances Academy are still in existence over 190 years later. Currently, the order has 80 members who continue to support the education and well-being of children in Baltimore, Miami, Florida, Buffalo, New York, and Alajuela and Siquirres, Costa Rica (Oblate Sisters of Providence 2019).


Gerdes, M. Reginald. “To Educate and Evangelize: Black Catholic Schools of the Oblate Sisters of Providence (1828-1880).” U.S. Catholic Historian 7, no. 2/3 (1988): 183-99. http://www.jstor.org.proxy-sm.researchport.umd.edu/stable/25153828.

Historic St. Mary’s City, The Chapel of St. Mary’s City, 2019, from https://hsmcdigshistory.org/research/archaeology/chapel/.

Morrow, Diane. (1997). Outsiders Within: The Oblate Sisters of Providence in 1830s Church and Society. U.S. Catholic Historian,15(2), 35-54. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.proxy-sm.researchport.umd.edu/stable/25154582

Morrow, Diane. (2000). “‘Our Convent’: The Oblate Sisters of Providence and Baltimore’s Antebellum Black Community,” Negotiating Boundaries of Southern Womanhood: Dealing with the Powers That Be. Janet L. Coryell, et al., eds. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000, 27-47.

Oblate Sisters of Providence, History, 2019, from http://www.oblatesisters.com/history

Posey, Thaddeus J. “Praying in the Shadows: The Oblate Sisters of Providence, a Look at Nineteenth-Century Black Catholic Spirituality.” U.S. Catholic Historian 12, no. 1 (1994): 11-30. http://www.jstor.org.proxy-sm.researchport.umd.edu/stable/25154009.

Pyne, Tricia. (2008). Ritual and Practice in the Maryland Catholic Community, 1634-1776. U.S. Catholic Historian, 26(2), 17-46. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.proxy-sm.researchport.umd.edu/stable/25156665

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