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Second to None

Recent Book Charts Pictorial History of Oblate Sisters, The Nation's First Order of Black Nuns

MY THREE NUNS: (from left) Oblate Sisters of Providence Crescentia Proctor, Constance Fenwick, and Lorraine George are among those working to have their order's founder, Mother Mary Lange, elevated to sainthood.

By Robbie Whelan | Posted 11/14/2007

In the chapel of Our Lady of Mount Providence Convent in Catonsville, 12 narrow stained-glass windows depict the founding and history of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the nation's first order of black nuns, founded in Baltimore in 1829. Sister Virginie Fish, a stooped but startlingly energetic nun who walks with a metal cane, stands in front of the tall, colored panels, gesturing at an image of Mother Mary Lange, the foundress of the order.

"Only God heals, but God has friends in heaven," she says to the small group of people assembled in the pews before her. "Have you ever had a friend who spoke on your behalf? It's the same way in heaven. Mother Mary Lange will speak on your behalf."

She is giving a presentation on Mother Lange's life to the White family, who have come from all over--the South, Delaware, Canada--to Baltimore for their family reunion. Elaine White-Edwards, a historian and grant writer from Swedesboro, N.J., organized this trip to Mount Providence so that her whole family could learn about the Oblate Sisters and their amazing story. She says her family roots lie in 19th- and early-20th-century Baltimore, and that she came here for her family reunion this year to "experience the spirit of [her] ancestors."

"The Sisters had many struggles, just as we've had struggles," White-Edwards says. "They tried to instill the value of education on several generations. It's inspiring to hear their history."

The Whites are Baptist, not Catholic, and none of them lives in the Baltimore area anymore, but it is telling that an African-American family like theirs looks up to Lange--an obscure hero even in Catholic circles--as an important figure in black history, and as someone they want their children to know about.

Faith Cadden, 27, another member of the White family, had never heard of Mother Lange before she came but found what Sister Virginie said about her to be inspiring. "I like the fact that she made a difference for African-American children," Cadden says. "I think she was a hero because she was an educator."

For nearly 10 years, the Oblate Sisters have been waiting with bated breath for word from the Vatican on their effort to canonize Mother Lange, an effort spearheaded by Sister Fish that involves gathering documents that establish that the 19th-century pioneer of black Catholicism was a "virtuous servant of God," and proof that a miracle or divine intercession occurred on her behalf. In other words, in order for Lange to be considered for sainthood, it must be officially shown that someone prayed to her, and that the prayer was answered.

But Sister Fish is not daunted by this early requirement of the canonization process. "We are waiting for the Catholic Church to officially and publicly proclaim that she is in heaven," she says. "That means we have to submit to Rome not only the documents of her life but also a miracle--and miracles happen every day."

In the meantime, the Oblate Sisters have published a beautiful pictorial history of their order that serves not only as a handsome souvenir for a religious organization that is approaching its 200th year but also a treasury of rare and fascinating images of African-American history in Baltimore.

The book is the work of Sharon C. Knecht, a Catonsville resident and Roman Catholic convert who works part-time as an archivist at the Mount Providence library. She discovered a cache of thousands of photographs in a storage room in 2001 while she was working as an intern for the Oblate Sisters' archives for a credit toward her master's degree in history from UMBC.

"I was awestruck," Knecht says. "I could not believe the richness and the value [the photos] had. Not just for the sisters and their community life, but of African-American secular life in the 19th century, as well."

Oblate Sisters of Providence: A Pictorial History starts just like the stained-glass chronicle in the Mount Providence chapel: by outlining the history of the order. Born in the early 1780s in either Haiti or Santiago de Cuba, Elizabeth Lange fled from Haiti to Cuba in the wake of the violent slave uprisings led by Toussaint L'Ouverture in the 1790s. A mulatto free black, she settled in Baltimore in 1813 and began teaching young French-speaking black girls in her basement.

Her school became so successful that by 1829 the sisters had found an ally in a Baltimore-based French Catholic priest named James Hector Joubert, who had also fled Haiti around the turn of the 19th century. Since all orders of women religious were required, at that time, to be overseen by a male priest, Joubert became the Oblate Sisters' advocate with the Vatican, and in 1829, against incredible racial and social odds, Elizabeth Lange changed her name to Mother Mary Lange and became the first superior general of America's first black order of women religious. The order has grown and expanded its mission since then, including significant work in New Orleans, Costa Rica, Cuba, and all over the American South and Midwest. The original school founded by Lange, St. Frances Academy, still exists today on Chase Street in East Baltimore.

Some of the early photos in the book, such as the one of Mother Louisa Noel, who served as superior general 1844-'51 and 1861-'85, are austere clerical portraits. Almost all of them show African-American women posed seated and unsmiling, though some of them, like Mother Theresa Catherine Willigman (mother superior, 1885-'97), have complexions so light it's hard to identify them as women of color. The collection also takes us through a history of religious vestment, showing nuns wearing early pillbox-style bonnets, then the cumbersome "dip veils," with blinders near the ears, and later on, the "short veils," adopted by the Oblate Sisters in 1967, which cover most, but not all, of the hair.

As the photo collection approaches the late 1800s and the early 20th century, many photos appear from Baltimore portrait studios such as Reissert's, J. Holyland, and Strauss'. Many of these portraits are first communion photos of young African-American and African-Latino girls. Two tintypes from the J. Holyland studio in the 1860s and '70s show young women, clearly of mixed race, posing in conservative, almost gothic-looking black gowns. One wears a medal around her neck from the St. Frances Academy, and both images have been colorized after printing with red rouge on the girls' cheeks, accentuating and whitewashing their features. The same red-tinting technique is used in three tintypes of young men from Baltimore's J.H. Pope Studio, taken in the late 1860s or early '70s. In these, the young men pose in both altar-boy vestments and Sunday suits, staring sternly at the camera, and the coloring on their faces almost completely robs them of their dignity--it looks not only unrealistic, but ridiculous.

Throughout A Pictorial History, there are group shots from the Sisters' various ministries that show Oblate Sisters nuns posing, teaching, dancing, playing sports, rehearsing plays, and having picnics with groups of African-American children. One particularly striking group portrait shows two nuns, sisters Clare Terrence and Callista Cunningham, practicing proper use of a fire extinguisher in front of the Queen of Angels school in Newark, N.J. A dumpy police officer oversees them, while a crowd of boys and girls in school uniforms looks on. It's so mundane, so effortlessly posed, that it could be a Norman Rockwell cover from The Saturday Evening Post--only this is black urban Catholic America, not white suburban Protestant America.

The collection is full of highlights--a school-yard footrace from 1950 that shows the Formstone back facades of several Baltimore rowhouses, a triangular portrait of the "Holy Epiphany Orchestra," a shot of four nuns packed into a station wagon on their way to a mission in Detroit, which might as well have a caption reading "Nun Road Trip" for its silliness--but none sticks out in the mind more than the Brides of Christ photos.

A series of images from the first half of the 20th century shows Oblate Sisters being accepted into the order in a wedding ceremony in which the women take their vows of poverty and chastity and symbolically become "Brides of Christ." There are three photos of these young black women, most of them around 20 years old, decked out in beautiful lace gowns and trains, lining up in the churchyard, walking down the aisle in the chapel, posing with broad smiles. The whole ceremony, which went out of fashion in 1962, was so bizarre because you can't help but notice the conjugal implications of the ceremony when you see these photos of women gussying themselves up and trying to look their best on their wedding day.

A history of the Oblate Sisters is not, by any stretch of the imagination, also a history of black life in Baltimore, but the photos provided in this book deliver a strong message about the longevity of a group of women over almost two centuries of existence in a world that was hesitant to have them. They sat through expensive photo shoots that ended with technicians trying to make them look whiter, just as their secular counterparts all across the United States sat in at lunch counters and soda fountains trying to get the same service as whites. And that story, depicted so eloquently by Knecht's photo selection, is really what Sister Fish and the other nuns pushing for Mother Lange's canonization are trying to get across.

"Why didn't she go to Delaware or New York, or somewhere with more latitude? Why start a black Catholic order in a slave state, in Baltimore?" Sister Fish asks. "I think she settled here because it was what God wanted her to do--no one would have a doubt that he was involved, that his hand was involved. To start an order of black women religious in a slave state was impossible. But with God, nothing is impossible."

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