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Who founded the first religious order for African-American women?

As an immigrant living in Baltimore before the Emancipation Proclamation, Mother Mary Lange saw firsthand the discrimination and obstacles faced by African Americans in her community. Throughout her lifetime, she combatted inequality through various educational initiatives and founded the first religious order for African-American women. With the 141st anniversary of her death on February 3, we invite you to reflect upon her legacy and discover where she is portrayed in the Basilica.

Early Life

Born Elizabeth Clarisse Lange, Mother Lange is believed to have immigrated to the U.S. from Santiago, Cuba, at a young age. She settled in Baltimore, Maryland with a community of French-speaking Catholics who primarily hailed from Haiti. For this reason, some historians speculate that she might have actually been from Haiti rather than Cuba, but it is unclear what her true country of origin was.

Educating the Community and Founding an Order

Students of the St. Francis Academy
Students of the St. Francis Academy with Mother Lange Source: Catholic Review

In Baltimore during this time, immigrants’ children were often denied entrance to schools based on the color of their skin. Seeing their desperate need for education, Elizabeth and her friend Marie Magdelaine Balas decided to open a school in their home.

Their school attracted the notice of Reverend James Hector Joubert, who encouraged Elizabeth to begin a religious order dedicated to educating African-American girls. With his support, she founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first order for African-American women. She took the name Mary and started what would become the St. Francis Academy.

Not only did Mother Lange’s order provide much-needed education, but they also offered nursing assistance during the cholera epidemic and homes for widows and orphans of the Civil War.

Their educational efforts were not simply limited to children; the Oblate Sisters of Providence also visited homes and held night classes to teach adults to read and write.

Mother Mary Lange
Mother Mary Lange depicted in stained glass in the Lower Sacristy


After the death of Father Joubert, Mother Lange’s life became more challenging. He had been her tireless partner in ministry, gathering financial support and encouraging women to join the order. But nevertheless, Mother Lange persevered, and over a century later, the thriving school and order remain a testimony to her diligence in ministry. Today, St. Francis Academy is the longest continuously operating African American Catholic school in the United States. She passed away on February 3 in 1882, and her cause for canonization was opened in 1990, making her a “Servant of God.”

Mother Mary Lange is honored in the Basilica in a window in the Crypt Church Sacristy.


“Black Saints: Mother Mary Lange,” National Catholic Reporter

“Meet Mother Mary Lange, the namesake of the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s newest school,” Catholic Review

“Mother Mary Lange,”

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