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!

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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.
Back: 
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.

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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). Continue reading

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