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Pope Declares Mother Lange ‘Venerable’

A painting depicts Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, who founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore, the world’s first sustained women’s religious community for Black women. (OSV News photo/courtesy Catholic Review)

by Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Recognizing that she lived the Christian virtues in a heroic way, Pope Francis has declared venerable Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, founder of the first Catholic order of African American nuns. 

The pope signed the decree June 22. A miracle attributed to Mother Lange’s intercession is still necessary before she can be beatified, and another miracle would need to be attributed to her intercession in order for her to become a saint.

Meeting with Cardinal Marcello Semeraro, prefect of the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints, Pope Francis also declared venerable Sister Lúcia dos Santos, who, with her cousins, reported seeing a vision of the Virgin Mary when she was a child in Fátima, Portugal.

The pope also recognized the martyrdom of Father Manuel González-Serna Rodríguez and 19 other diocesan priests, laymen, and laywomen killed in 1939 during the Spanish Civil War. The recognition of martyrdom clears the way for their beatification without a miracle.

Mother Lange, who was born in Cuba to Haitian parents, came to the United States around 1813, settling near Baltimore, and saw how the children of other immigrants needed education.

“She was determined to respond to that need in spite of being a black woman in a slave state long before the Emancipation Proclamation,” according to the official website of her sainthood cause. “She used her own money and home to educate children of color.”

With the encouragement and support of a priest and Archbishop James Whitfield of Baltimore, she and three other women made promises of poverty, chastity, and obedience in 1829, founding the Oblate Sisters of Providence, an order that continues today. Mother Lange died in 1882.

Mother Lange is one of six African American Catholics who are candidates for sainthood. The others are: Julia Greeley, who after her emancipation from enslavement joined the Secular Franciscan Order and promoted devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus; Sister Thea Bowman, a Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, who was a noted educator and evangelist; Father Augustus Tolton, the first publicly known Black Catholic priest in the United States; Sister Henriette Delille, who founded the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family; and Pierre Toussaint, a formerly enslaved philanthropist who supported many Catholic charitable works.

Greeley and Sister Bowman all have the title “Servant of God,” bestowed when a sainthood cause is officially opened. The latter three in the list and now Mother Lange have been given the title “venerable.”

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