“My sole wish is to do the will of God.”
Elizabeth Clarisse Lange, later known as Mother Mary Lange founded the first community for Black women religious in the United States.
She had a profoundly tranformative impact on the life of the Catholic Church. Of French and African dissent she was born in Santiago de Cuba in 1784. Other oral traditions indicate she may have been born in Haiti. Her family fled the violence and uncertainty of the Haitian Revolution immigrating first to Cuba in one of Santiago’s French-speaking neighborhoods. During her childhood, she received an excellent education.
Sometime in the early 1800s Elizabeth and her mother Annette left their lives of relative wealth and comfort in Cuba to come to the United States. Her father did not join them. Although the reason for their departure is not clear, some speculate that the mother and daughter decided to leave in 1808 when the newly established government in Cuba required all non-Spanish citizens to sign an oath of allegiance to the king of Spain. Mother Lange always identified herself as French – even to her soul.
They arrived in the United States at Charleston, South Carolina but only remained a short time before making their way to Norfolk, Virginia and finally to Baltimore, Maryland by 1813. Here Eizabeth made her home in the Fells Point area of the city where she felt at home amongst an already sizable community of fellow French speaking Afro-Caribbeans. Her mother, on the other hand, returned to the West Indies.
In the United States, Lange courageously faced multiple oppressions. First, she was a Black women in a white male dominated culture. Secondly, she was an immigrant and a Catholic in a nation where virulent anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic movements were rearing up. Native-born Protestants, mostly in urban areas, felt threatened by the new arrivals. To many Protestants, the Catholic Church represented tyranny and potential subjugation to a foreign power. On a practical level, competition for jobs increased as new laborers arrived. As anti-immigrant and anti–Catholic feelings arose, nativist groups began to form in cities across the United States. Finally, Lange was a free Black woman in a nation where slavery was fiercely defended and religiously sanctioned and where Maryland, a slave state, resisted freeing slaves even after the Emancipation Proclaimation of Jan 1, 1863. It was not until November 1, 1864 that Maryland declared slaves free which was just a few months before Congress approved the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery.
To learn more, download our resource packet. Women Witnesses for Racial Justice resource packets include: