Deceased Black Nun May Reach Sainthood

by Evette Dionne

Nun Reaching SainthoodA Baltimore nun who initiated the world’s first black Catholic order has begun the process to sainthood. The remains of Mother Mary Lange, who started the order in 1829, have been returned to the Oblate Sisters of Providence. The Haiti-born, Cuban-raised nun was initially buried in Baltimore, but was welcomed to the order’s cemetery this week.

The Archdiocese believes Sister Lange is deserving of canonization for her role in spreading Catholicism through love, especially during a time when people of color were enslaved throughout the North and the South.

“She had many, many obstacles–among them racial prejudice and hatred–and her love overcame that in her life,” said Baltimore’s Archbishop William Lori.

Free education for African-American children didn’t exist when Lange immigrated to Maryland in 1868, so opened a school in her home. She and Marie Magdaleine Balas – later known as Sister Frances – owned and operated the school for over 10 years.

Her love for mankind didn’t end there. Lange was encouraged by Reverend James Hector Joubert, the former Archbishop of Baltimore, to open a religious convent for the education of girls of color. It would be the first African-American religious order in the history of the Catholic Church and would spread the word of God to communities of color.

On July 2, 1829, Lange – who was born with the first name Elizabeth – and three other founders professed their love for God and became the Oblate Sisters of Providence. She accepted the religious name of Mary and served as the order’s superior general until 1832 and then again from 1835 to 1841.

The Oblate Sisters were active in the Baltimore community, sheltering orphans and the elderly, nursing the ill, and accepting and educating free slaves about Catholicism. The women also served as domestics at Saint Mary’s Seminary.

Lange died February 3, 1882 at Saint Frances Convent in Baltimore, her work has continued to inspire. She was influential in Africa, Cuba, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic, leading to worldwide recognition and respect. The first American school was named after her in 2005, when three local Baltimore schools – St. Dominic School, Shrine of the Little Flower and St. Anthony of Padua – combined to form the Mother Mary Lange Catholic School.

There are four steps that must be completed before Lange will be welcomed into sainthood.

The first step determines if the potential saint was a “servant of God.” It begins with a bishop in the region where the person died petitioning the Vatican to investigate the nun or bishop’s works. The current Archbishop of that city or state begins combing through the candidate’s writing, sermons, speeches and other documents and creating a profile that is then presented to the Congregation for the Cause of Saints, known as Roman Curia. The Roman Curia then grants permission for the candidate’s body to be exhumed for examination. This is done to ensure the candidate did not practice heretical worship. The Vatican investigated Lange’s works in 1991 when the first petition for canonization was created. It was completed in 2004 by Cardinal William H. Keller, the former Archbishop of Baltimore.

The next step is the determination of “heroic in virtue” status. This step involves the congregation approaching the Pope. He grants his permission based on the candidate’s exhibition of Catholic virtues such as faith and hopes and cardinal virtues like fortitude and prudence. If this is approved, the title of “Venerable” is bestowed on the candidate. A “Venerable” candidate may have prayer cards printed in her honor, but can’t have a feast named after her or churches established with her name included.

A “venerable” candidate is then declared blessed if the Church finds she is a martyr or confessor who’s made it to heaven. Martyrdom is bestowed if the Pope finds the venerable was a voluntary witness for Catholicism or acted in a way that displays heroic charity. If the venerable is deemed a confessor, the Pope must determine that the candidate initiated a miracle, such as curing an ailment. The blessing status brings a designated feast day with it, but it’s not on a national level.

The final step is the determination of sainthood. In order to be canonized as a saint, the blessed must have performed two miracles after her death. A feast day is celebrated throughout the Catholic Church, parish churches are built in the saint’s honor and there is continual celebrating of the saint.

Lange is currently in the second phase on the canonization process. “Positio,” an 800-page document proving her heroic life is being written by Vatican official, Brother Reginald Cruz. It will be submitted to the Vatican in the coming month.

Currently, the next step in Mother Mary Lange’s canonization is proof she lived a “heroic life”, which is being written by Vatican official, Brother Reginald Cruz. Cruz will finish the 800-page-thesis, entitled “Positio”, next month and will submit it to the Vatican. The process of two verified miracles can take an unknown amount of time.

The final two steps of the process will take an indeterminate amount of time, but the Oblate Sisters of Providence already see their founder as a saint.

“She’s already a saint [to us]. That’s why we’re so happy today. Imagine having a saint here with us, huh?” said Sister Mary Alexis Fisher.

If canonized, Lange will be the first African-American saint. Henriette Delille, the African-American female founder of the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans, is also in the process of canonization.

  • Starla

    Thanks for the little piece of history, Evette. Mothe rmary used her time on earth well.

  • Mademoiselle

    I can only imagine the my mother’s elation if this happens in her lifetime.

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