Waiting for a miracle with the Oblate Sisters of Providence

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The Oblate Sisters may be the oldest order of black nuns in the world, and they got their start right here in Maryland. Now, their members are hoping to live long enough to see their founder, Mother Lange, officially recognized as a saint.

But first, they’ll need a miracle.

To qualify as a miracle, an event needs to be really extraordinary.

“It couldn’t have been done by ordinary means, by going to a doctor or a hospital or whatever,” says Sister Magdala Marie Gilbert, 86, of the Oblate Sisters of Providence. “It has to be a God thing.”

Gilbert’s expertise in miracles comes from her years working to have her order’s founder, Mother Lange, be declared a saint in the Catholic Church. In order to be publicly sanctified, multiple miracles, or healings, will need to take place – and be verified by doctors in Baltimore and Rome. A disease will be cured. Sight regained. Something amazing — attributed to Lange.

But to Gilbert, it’s a miracle that Mother Lange’s Oblate Sisters are still here at all.

“I say God had her back,” Gilbert said. “I wouldn’t call her stubborn, but she knew what she wanted, she knew who she was serving, and she went on and did what she had to do.”

Elizabeth Clarissa Lange was a woman of color born in the Caribbean — most likely in Santiago de Cuba — around 1794, to a well-to-do Catholic family. She spoke French and Spanish. Little else is known about her life until she moved to Baltimore around the year 1813, and with a friend opened a free school for black children, at their home in Fells Point.

“She was an absolutely extraordinary woman,” said Deacon Vito S. Piazza of St. Mary’s Chapel in Baltimore. Back then, St. Mary’s, located on Paca Street, ministered to the large Haitian immigrant community that lived in surrounding neighborhood, then known as the city’s French Quarter. People came, Piazza said, drawn by the Sulpician priests who ran St. Mary’s and could give homilies in French.

One of those Sulpician priests was named Fr. Joubert, a French-born priest who, like Lange, had spent time in Cuba. He had been teaching religion to the children in the area when he realized that many of them couldn’t read. He met with Lange and suggested, first that they start a school, and second, that they establish a new religious order to ensure a steady supply of nuns to be teachers.

“We’ve been waiting 10 years to consecrate our life to God,” Lange and her friend reportedly told Joubert. Together, they founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first order of black nuns in modern history. The school they ran school was St. Frances, the oldest Catholic school for children of color in the United States.

This – at a time when much of Baltimore’s black population was enslaved, and racism ran rampant. “Some people believed that black people didn’t have a soul,” Knecht said. “And here you had these educated women who were educating children in a normal Catholic fashion.”

The sisterhood faced many challenges early on, particularly after Joubert’s death in 1844, Knecht said. Though Lange gave the order all her money, including several thousand dollars she received from her father, they struggled to stay afloat financially. Nuns begged for donations in Baltimore’s fish market and along the harbor, although Knecht said this was common practice for nuns in those days.

“I always say that she was a woman with four strikes against her,” said Knecht. Lange was a woman in a male-dominated society, a Catholic in a Protestant country, an immigrant in a nativist area and person of color in a slave state. But she succeeded anyway.

Sister Gilbert, who has struggled with plenty of health problems in her 68 years as a nun, said she finds inspiration in Mother Lange’s perseverance. When things are difficult, she tells herself, “Hey, this is nothing compared to what [Mother Lange] went through. At least I know where my next meal is coming, we have doctors who will take care of us. Then it was just an iffy thing.”

Lange died in 1882, presumably nearing 100. She was buried in West Baltimore; in 2013, her remains were exhumed and transferred to the Oblate Sisters’ motherhouse in Catonsville, where they were placed in a sealed sarcophagus, guarding against potential looters who might try to snag a body part, or relic, from the potential saint. Then, Archbishop Lori said: “I’m convinced of this cause of her sainthood, and this [event] is a sign that process is moving forward.”

Gilbert heads the guild pursuing Lange’s canonization, a journey that the Oblate Sisters began in the late 1980s. A roadblock has come with the length of time it’s taken for the writing of the positio — a dissertation-like biography of Lange’s life. It’s being written by a man named Brother Reginald Cruz, Gilbert said, though she hasn’t heard from him in years. Cruz did not respond to email requests for comment. Gilbert hopes he finishes while she’s still alive.

“We pray about that positio all the time,” she said. “We pray for it to hurry and get done.”

Knecht echoed the frustration at how long the positio is taking. “It’s coming slowly,” she said.

After the positio is complete, it will be sent to Rome for approval, and Lange could be made, “venerable.” A tribunal here in Baltimore and then in Rome will review a miracle attributed to Lange.

“There’ve been two that’ve been looked at” by doctors in Baltimore, Knecht said. “The first one did not hold up. The second one looked very very promising.”

As with a criminal investigation, the details are kept under wraps until the results are known, Knecht said.

“This is pretty serious business,” she said. “It’s gotta be medically proved or disproved.” Should that miracle pass muster, Lange will become “blessed.”

After that, yet another miracle will be needed attributed to Lange before she can be made a saint.

“But anyway, that’s all in God’s hands,” said Gilbert.