It’s possible that we’ve never been more aware of worldwide tragedy and social ills than in today’s digital era.
The sheer magnitude of human suffering is overwhelming—not to mention that our mainstream culture and political landscape are rife with animosity and division over what the biggest issues are and how best to address them.
It’s enough to make a Christian wonder, “What can I possibly do to help?”
How do we make sense of our responsibilities to a world in pain? How do we know where to focus our efforts? And how can we trust that what we do will even have any impact? As we consider and pray about where God may be asking us to serve—be it at a homeless shelter, a crisis pregnancy center, or our local school board—we’d do well to look at the example of Servant of God Mother Mary Lange.
As a Black immigrant to Baltimore in the 1800s, Lange dedicated herself both to educating Black children and founding the first religious order for women of color in the United States. Through prayer, perseverance, and reliance on Divine Providence, she attended to the needs of her local community—and left a legacy of social work and faith that continues to this day.
Practicing Patience and Perseverance. Elizabeth Lange was born sometime around 1784 in Santiago de Cuba, where her parents had settled after fleeing the revolution in their homeland, Haiti. Of Lange’s early life, we know only that she was well educated and wealthy. Sometime in her twenties, she left Cuba for the United States and ultimately settled in Baltimore, Maryland.
Early nineteenth-century Baltimore was home to the country’s largest population of free Black men and women, many of them immigrants. However, Baltimore was hardly welcoming to people of color. Even freed, they were largely excluded from the economic opportunities the white population enjoyed, and so lived in relative poverty. Black children were not allowed in public schools—and, indeed, much of the white population opposed their being educated at all.
And laws aside, racial prejudice and dehumanizing stereotypes dominated white attitudes toward people of color, even within the Church. Lange had long felt a call to consecrated life, but at the time, she was not welcome in any existing religious orders: They did not accept Black women.
Lange settled in a community of other Black immigrants, many who were Haitian refugees like her parents. Right away, she saw a need: there were no public schools for Black children. In response, Lange and a friend, Marie Magdaleine Balas, began a school for Black girls in her home. Some came from relatively wealthy, well-educated families like Lange’s, while others could not afford to pay any tuition. Lange and Balas welcomed them all.
Theirs was a response to a local need, and Lange and Balas didn’t yet know what fruit God would bring of their efforts or of their hope to consecrate their lives to him.
Lange’s story reminds us of God’s faithfulness and providence, for as she and her companions persisted faithfully in their vocations as educators of local children, he was at work. A local young priest, Fr. James Hector Joubert, served the local immigrant community as a catechist and found that many of his pupils lacked the educational foundation to study. Fr. Joubert confessed to two other priests his wish that a religious order could be established to teach girls of color. His confidantes told him they knew just the women to approach—and when he proposed his idea to Lange and her companions, they joyfully and humbly accepted.
In 1828, with the support of the Archbishop of Baltimore James Whitfield and under the direction of Fr. Joubert, Lange and three others—Rose Boegue, Almaide Maxis Duchemin, and of course Balas—began a preparatory novitiate. On July 2, 1829, the four professed their vows and became the Oblate Sisters of Divine Providence, the first religious community in the United States for women of color. Lange, who took the name Mary, became the order’s first Mother Superior.
Facing Barriers with Faith. Mother Lange and her sisters’ work was not without obstacles. During their novitiate, the owner of their residence asked that they move out—but, as women who could not own property, they were unable to remedy the situation themselves. Faced with this legal and financial obstacle—not to mention a broader hostility toward Black education—they relied on God to provide a new house for their community.
Fr. Joubert joined the sisters in prayer, hoping that he could raise funds to purchase a house under his own name that would give them long-term security. Soon an old friend approached him about a house he wanted to sell to Fr. Joubert for a reasonable price—and it became the sisters’ home for over forty years.
Other difficulties were more painful. A memoir written by an Oblate sister, Mother Theresa Willigman, noted that Fr. Joubert had “looked upon this infant convent with a father’s love,” grew ill. On November 5, 1843, the Oblates grieved over the death of their benefactor and friend.
While Archbishop Whitfield had always supported them, his successor—Archbishop Samuel Eccleston—failed to appoint another director, even suggesting that women of color need not be consecrated religious and that they would do well simply to disband.
Once again, Lange and the other sisters found themselves in the difficult position of not being able to meet their own needs. They could only pray and trust that God would give them another director of the community who could shepherd them and their work.
God intervened. Without a priest to say daily Mass for them, Mother Lange and the sisters went instead to two nearby parishes staffed by Redemptorist priests. Among those priests was Fr. Thaddeus Anwander, who was moved by the sisters’ situation. With the approval of his superior, and after pleading with the resistant archbishop, he became the Oblates’ new director.
Leaning on Divine Providence. Mother Lange and her sisters faced many more difficulties than these, of course. Yet every time, God affirmed his will for their work by clearing obstacles, providing timely help, and ultimately taking care of their needs.
Perhaps you expected Mother Mary Lange to have a more assertive, more visible role in these trials. Perhaps you thought she might have been acting publicly on behalf of the enslaved, or admonishing the Church for its various forms of racism, or visiting Archbishop Eccleston herself to advocate for the Oblates’ cause.
All of these would have been worthy actions. Yet Mother Mary Lange chose another way. She was well acquainted with her own limitations; many were imposed on her by the times, others that she was just one individual in a world full of tragedy and injustice. Instead of despairing, however, she trusted that God would pave the way.
In other words, as current Oblate Sister Magdala Marie Gilbert put it in A Woman Used by God, her book about Lange’s life, “She let go, emptied herself of self, and allowed God to be God.” Through prayer and faith, she let God do what she, on her own, could not.
Today, the Oblate Sisters of Divine Providence—which continue their ministry of education in Baltimore and other areas of the country—explain their spirituality this way: “That God has provided, does provide, and will provide.”
Or as a banner in the Oblates’ convent reads, “Providence rises before the sun.”
Learning from Mother Lange’s Legacy. Mother Lange died on February 3, 1882. Compared to other holy men and women of the Church, we know relatively little about her, and much of what we do know was recorded by people other than herself. Yet as much as we may have gained from personal writings or other windows into her perspective, her actions themselves offer an example to follow.
It is good to be aggrieved by the injustices and tragedies of our world. It is good to feel compassion for those who suffer, whether they’re a continent away or within our own neighborhoods. It is good to recognize our own dignity even if others call it into question. But the frantic, helpless feeling we can experience at such times may be a sign that we are overestimating what we think we ought to be able to do by ourselves. Lange reminds us that when we embrace our limitations, we leave God more room to work—and we learn to trust that he will provide what we need to do his will.
In spite of adversity, Mother Mary Lange trusted that God would clear the way for whatever he asked of her. Amid all the evils of her time, she kept a singular focus: to follow the Lord faithfully, step by small step. The fruit he brought—and continues to bring from her efforts—likely exceeded all she could have imagined accomplishing on her own.
Of the few words of hers we do have recorded, perhaps the most important are these that she wrote on behalf of her sisters: “Our sole wish is to do the will of God.”
Laura Loker writes from Northern Virginia.