by Ruby Randall
Did you know that during the 1820s a Haitian refugee, a free woman of color, established a religious society of colored women in Baltimore, Md.?
This congregation, the Oblate Sisters of Providence, became the first black Catholic community of vowed religious women in the United States and, according to Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore, in the world of Catholic Christians. The foundress, Elizabeth Lange, responded to God’s call in spite of the time, place and socio-political aspects of the society in which she lived. To teach black children in a slave state in 1828 was unheard of.
Father James Joubert, chaplain and co-founder, shared Lange’s French cultural heritage, her devotion to the Roman Catholic faith and her commitment to the education of black children. The Baltimore community, Catholic and Protestant, not only tolerated the institution of slavery but also actively participated in and profited from it. With Father Joubert’s support, Lange, later called Mother Mary, opened St. Frances School.
Today, St Frances Academy maintains sterling and unique qualities in education, and in 2003 celebrated 175 years as the only continuing educational institution for children of predominantly African heritage in this country.
As early as 1917, the Bishop of Charleston invited the Oblate Sisters of Providence (OSP) to provide educational, social and spiritual ministry to the African-American community. Originally organized as St. Peter School on Society Street, Immaculate Conception School was located on Shepherd and Coming and by 1930 a new structure opened with eight sisters and 365 students. Anna DeWees Kelly, a member of St. Patrick Church, still lives in Charleston and was one of the first group of students to attend Immaculate Conception.
Last summer Sister Annette Bee-cham, superior general of the Oblates, issued in Baltimore a proclamation declaring 2003 and 2004 as a “time of Thanksgiving, Reflective Prayer, and Rejoicing for all Oblate Sister of Providence, their families and friends,” marking the 175th anniversary of the order and St. Frances Academy.
Twenty-five Charlestonians attended the Baltimore celebration. Amelia Taylor, president of the Immaculate Conception Alumni Association, led the local alumni and friends on the journey.
The commemoration of the 175 years of piety and service included a Mass celebrated by Cardinal Keeler. The keynote speaker at the dinner gala was Dr. Camille Cosby, wife of entertainer Bill Cosby and an alumna of an Oblate school in Washington, D.C.
In 1991, Cardinal Keeler officially opened a formal investigation into the life of Elizabeth Lange, her life of union with God and works of charity that could lead to her canonization in the Catholic Church.
Arthur McFarland, Charleston Municipal Court Judge and Supreme Knight of the Knights of Peter Claver: “The Oblate Sisters of Providence are responsible for my conversion to Catholicism. As educators, they touched my intellect and my spirit. By example, they taught me about sacrifice, commitment and dedication. As disciplinarians, they understood their role as surrogate mothers in the neighborhood called “school.” As African-American women, they freed black boys and girls from the shackles of second class citizenship by giving us a world class education.”
Deacon Bill Johnson, director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministry for the Diocese of Camden, N.J.: ‘One of the most cherished memories of my life is that of the Oblate Sisters of Providence. These memories reflect my growing up in Charleston, S.C., and being taught by the Sisters at Immaculate Conception School with my most special memory of Sister Immaculate in my senior year. The example and training I received from them is largely the reason I answered God’s call to become a deacon.”
(Sister Immaculate, formerly Naomi Smith, of Charleston graduated from Immaculate Conception and was later a teacher and administrator at the school. She was an Oblate for more than 60 years.)
Yvonne Tolley Orr, principal of Charleston Catholic School and president of St. Patrick’s Parish Council: “The Oblate Sisters not only provided a strong academic and spiritual foundation for each of us, they helped us to discover and appreciate the richness of our heritage. Under their tutelage we realized our potential and responsibility to excel.”
Ruby Randall is a lay associate of the Oblate Sisters of Providence and an alumna of St. Frances Academy. Her father, the late Edward J.R. Randall, was a member of the first graduating class of Immaculate Conception in 1934.
For more information
Read The Oblates’ First 101 Years by Grace Sherwood, Persons of Color and Religious At the Same Time by Diane Batts Marrow, and The History of Black Catholics in the United States by Cyprian Davis, OSB; or contact Mount Providence Convent, 701 Gun Road, Baltimore, MD 21227, (410) 242-8500.