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Celebrating Black Catholic History

This month, the Campus Ministry Office at Fairfield Prep would like to highlight some important black Catholics each week during the month of FebruaryThis year’s theme for Black History Month, as put forth from the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, is Black Migrations, emphasizing the movement of people of African descent to new destinations and subsequently to new social realities.

Mother Mary Lange, founder of the first American religious order of women of color

This week, in honor of Black History Month, the Fairfield Prep Campus Ministry Department would like to shine the spotlight on Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, (1789-1882), the Foundress of the Oblate Sisters of Providence.

The Oblate Sisters: An Historic First

Elizabeth Clarisse Lange (Mother Mary Lange of the Oblate Sisters of Providence) was born circa 1784 and died February 3, 1882.

Mother Mary Lange founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence in 1829. The Oblates were the first United States based religious order of women of color.

The Oblate Sisters were role models who provided an atmosphere of faith and hope to parents and to children degraded by slavery.

As an immigrant, as a free woman in a slave state, and as a Catholic in a Protestant country, Mary Lange faced many odds. But none that could shake her faith.

From Haiti to Baltimore

Elizabeth Clarisse Lange’s parents were refugees who fled to Cuba from the revolution taking place in their native Saint Domingue (now modern-day Haiti). In the early 1800s young Elizabeth left Santiago, Cuba to seek peace and security in the United States. Providence directed her to Baltimore, Maryland, where a great influx of French-speaking Catholic Saint Domingue refugees was settling.

Elizabeth Lange came to Baltimore as a courageous, loving, deeply spiritual woman. Although she was a refugee, she was well educated, and of independent means, possessing monies left to her by her father. She came as a strong, independent thinker and doer.

Educating Children of Color

It did not take Elizabeth long to recognize that the children of her fellow refugees needed education. She used her own money and home to educate these children of color. For ten years Elizabeth, with a friend, Marie Magdaleine Balas, offered free education.

Early in 1828 Providence intervened again through the person of Reverend James Hector Joubert, S.S. who, encouraged by Archbishop James Whitfield, presented Elizabeth Lange with the challenge to start a school for girls of color. While Elizabeth talked to Father Joubert she confessed that for over ten years she had wanted to commit her life to God and was waiting for His call.

She then asked Father Joubert if they should start a religious order for women, too. He thought it over and decided it was a very worthwhile idea.

Fr. Joubert would provide the direction, solicit financial assistance and encourage other women of color to become members of this, the first congregation of women of African heritage. Elizabeth joyously acquiesced. But how was this to be? Black men and women could not aspire to religious life at that time. God was providing a way!

She and two other black women started the first black Catholic school in America.

Founding the Oblate Sisters of Providence

Then, on July 2, 1829, Elizabeth and three other women (Rosanne Boegue, Marie Balas and an older student, Almaide Duchemin) took their vows. The first paragraph of the Rule was quite simple:

“The Oblate Sisters of Providence are a religious society of virgins and widows of color. Their end is to consecrate themselves to God in a special manner not only to sanctify themselves and thereby secure the greater glory of God, but also to work for the Christian education of colored children.”

Mother Mary Lange practiced faith to an extraordinary degree. In fact, it was her deep faith which enabled her to persevere against all odds. To her black brothers and sisters she gave of herself and her material possessions until she was empty of all but Jesus, whom she shared generously with all by being a living witness to his teaching.

Elizabeth, founder and first superior of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, took the name of Mary. These women demonstrated leadership and divine daring in the face of poverty, racism, humiliations and untold hardships. The sisters were role models who provided an atmosphere of faith and hope to parents and to children degraded by slavery. In Mother Lange’s school, Catholics and non-Catholics were accepted.

The multiplicity of works undertaken by the Oblate Sisters despite a shortage of personnel and financial resources gives evidence to the depth of their awareness, devotion, self-denial and desire to serve.

The sisters:

  • educated youth and provided a home for orphans,
  • nursed the terminally ill during the cholera epidemic of 1832,
  • sheltered the elderly, widows, and homeless,
  • served as domestics at St. Mary’s Seminary in time of crisis,
  • took in washing, ironing and mending to care for the “children of the house”,
  • made and sold vestments and altar cloths,
  • organized fairs,
  • provided adult education and career training,
  • begged and borrowed so that solid virtue, religious and moral principles could be transferred as a legacy to the children.

By 1860, all of the Catholic schools for “colored” children in Baltimore were taught by Oblate Sisters: St. Frances Academy, St. Joseph’s School for Boys and St. Michael’s. During the 20th century, Oblate schools were founded in 15 states in the United States as well as in Cuba.

They have given witness during periods of social struggle by active participation for almost 200 years of continual service to schools, day care centers, outreach and catechetical programs which encompass all age levels. They provide social and pastoral services to all ethnic groups. The first school she founded still stands after 190 years, and 99% of its graduates attend college.

Mother Mary Lange, Servant of God

Mother Lange’s life was a long one. She lived to celebrate the golden anniversary of the order. She is an example of how we may all aspire to be. In close union with her God, she lived through disappointment and opposition until God called her to himself February 3, 1882.  

In 1991 William Cardinal Keeler, the then Archbishop of Baltimore, with the approval of Rome, officially opened formal investigation into her life of union with God and works of charity which could lead to her canonization as saint in the Catholic Church.

“What were the works of Mother Mary Lange? We know of her private school in the early 1800s, of her academy in 1828 and of her religious foundation in 1829. But, there was also an orphanage, a widow’s home, spiritual direction, religious education classes and vocational training. The early Sisters did home visiting and conducted night schools so black adults could learn to read and write. When the Civil War was over, Baltimore was flooded with black war orphans. Mother Mary gathered 60 of them and began a new era of caring for destitute children. She was a religious pioneer” (Sr. Reginald Gerdes, OSP, What We Have Seen and Heard, p. 81).

At the present time she is referred to as Mother Mary Lange, Servant of God.




Additional Resources - Photos and Videos

Venerable Pierre Toussaint: Gave to the poor, cared for the sick, committed Catholic

This week the Campus Ministry Office would like to shine the spotlight on Venerable Pierre Toussaint. Born in modern-day Haiti and brought to New York City as a slave, Pierre died a free man, a renowned hairdresser, and one of NYC’s most well-known Catholics. 

I no longer call you slave; I have called you friend.

Pierre was born into slavery in the French colony of Saint Domingue, which is modern-day Haiti, in 1766. His great-grandmother had been born in Africa and sold into slavery in the Caribbean. His owner, Monsieur Jacques Bérard, had gained great wealth from raising and selling sugar. Bérard had Pierre baptized into the Catholic faith and also allowed his grandmother to teach her grandson how to read and write. He was also educated by the family’s tutors, which was very unusual for the time, and, as a curious boy, he was allowed access to M. Bérard’s library. Jacques Bérard trained the boy as a house slave, saving him from the hard labor expended by those working in the sugarcane fields.

In the late 18th century, tensions were rising among the enslaved population in Haiti, and the senior Bérard returned to France. He left his son, Jean Bérard, with the plantation. However, the pressure continued to build among the slaves and Jean decided it was time to leave. In 1787, he and his wife took five of his slaves with them, including Pierre and Pierre’s sister, Rosalie, and moved to New York City.

Jean managed to get Pierre into an apprenticeship as a hairdresser. The young man became an artist at hair styling, excelling in this era when the wealthy women had their hair stacked high with layers of curls and ribbons. Hair styling was time-consuming and demanding, and soon Pierre had more business than he could handle.

Jean Bérard’s decision to leave Haiti proved to be a wise one. In 1793, the slaves in Haiti revolted and Monsieur Bérard heard that his plantation had been burned to the ground. He was so distraught that he passed away, probably from heart failure, leaving his wife in need of care.

Love one another

Pierre was determined to support himself, his master’s widow, and the other house slaves. He worked almost 16 hours a day. Eventually, Mme. Marie Bérard married again, wedding another man from Haiti named Monsieur Nicolas. She made him promise that if anything happened to her, he would make sure that Pierre was given his freedom. When she passed away, Nicolas kept his promise and Pierre was given his freedom, and he took the surname of Toussaint, likely in honor of Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution. By then, Pierre had saved enough money to pay for the freedom of his fiancée, Marie Rose Juliette, and married her. He also managed to buy the freedom of his sister, Rosalie, and they later adopted Euphémie, his orphaned niece. By this time Pierre was almost 45.

Pierre and Juliette enrolled Euphémie in a New York school for black children. To prepare Euphémie for life in New York, Pierre mentored her in French and music lessons and taught her to write in French and English. Her papers survive in the New York Public Library. The Toussaint family was devastated by the death of Euphémie at the young age of 14 after the was struck with tuberculosis.

Go and bear fruit that will remain

Pierre Toussaint was dedicated to the theological virtue of charity. He attended daily Mass at St. Peter’s Church on Barclay Street, the same parish that St. Elizabeth Ann Seton had attended. He donated to various charities, generously assisting blacks and whites in need. He and his wife opened their home to orphans and educated them in letters and trade. He cared for the sick and brought them into his home as well, nursing them back to health. He visited areas infected with disease and plague, bringing food and clothing to the suffering. He helped Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton (who had an orphanage in the city) by raising money from his rich customers and giving the future saint his own money.  Urged to retire and enjoy the wealth he had accumulated, Pierre responded, “I have enough for myself, but if I stop working I have not enough for others.” The Toussaint family also organized a credit bureau and employment agency.

At a time when being Catholic was could be dangerous, and doubly so for a black man, Pierre attended daily Mass every day at 6 a.m. for 66 years. He sheltered orphans, provided foster care for children, helped them get into school and even helped some of them get their first jobs. During a cholera epidemic when many of the city’s political leaders fled the city in search of healthier rural climates, he crossed over the quarantine lines to help the sick, without regard for his own well-being.

One of Pierre Toussaint’s achievements was helping the Church raise the funds to build the first St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mulberry St. in Lower Manhattan. The story is told that on the day the cathedral was dedicated, Pierre went to the church for the celebration. But because he was black, an usher would not allow him to enter. Pierre, who had paid for so much of the cathedral’s building, apologized and turned to leave, but another usher recognized him and immediately brought him to a seat of honor. He also provided and raised funding for the first Catholic school for black children at St. Vincent de Paul in lower Manhattan.

Pierre Toussaint died on June 30, 1857. He was 87 years old, and he was originally buried outside Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where he was once refused entrance because of his race. In 1991, Pierre was declared a Servant of God. Five years later he was declared Venerable by Pope John Paul II. His sanctity and the popular devotion to him caused his body to be moved, and he was thus the first layperson honored by having his remains interred in the crypt at the present St. Patrick’s Cathedral on 5th Avenue in midtown Manhattan. His remains lie in the company of many princes of the Church.

Remain in my love

Pierre Toussaint was internally free long before he was legally free. He lived in an era when not only was he looked down upon as a freed slave, but anti-Catholicism was also strong in New York at the time. Refusing to become bitter, he daily chose to cooperate with God’s grace and never stopped professing his faith. His endurance helped him to become a compelling sign of God’s wildly generous love.

Venerable Pierre Toussaint, pray for us.


Prayer to Venerable Pierre Toussaint

O virtuous Pierre Toussaint, son of Haiti, pray for all the poor and afflicted. Pray especially for your brothers and sisters in Haiti as they seek freedom from the oppression of poverty and calamity. Through your prayerful intercession, strengthen the weak, enrich the poor, comfort the downcast, and inspire courage and hope among all those who struggle each day. Amen.

Prayer for the Cause of Venerable Pierre Toussaint

Lord God, source of love and compassion, we praise and honor You for the virtuous and charitable life of our brother in Christ, Venerable Pierre Toussaint. Inspired by the example of our Lord Jesus, Pierre worshipped You with love and served Your people with generosity. He attended Mass daily and responded to the practical and spiritual needs of friends and stranger, of the rich and the poor, the sick and the homeless of 19th-century New York. If it is Your will, let the name of Venerable Pierre Toussaint be officially raised to the rank of Saint, so that the world may know this Haitian New Yorker who refused to hate or be selfish, and instead lived to the full the commandments of heaven and the divine law of love – love for God and for neighbor. By following his example and asking for his prayers, may we, too, be counted among the blessed in heaven. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.



Additional Resources

Pierre Toussaint Businessman and Philanthropist

Video Bio of Pierre Toussaint

Memoir of Pierre Toussaint


The Rev. Augustus Tolton, first black Catholic priest in the U.S.

Submitted by Christopher Holownia, n.S.J.

Our first spotlight goes on Fr. Augustus Tolton, who conquered almost insurmountable odds and is now regarded as the very first black Roman Catholic priest in the United States.

Born Into Slavery

Fr. Tolton was born in 1854 in Missouri into a black Catholic slave family, shortly after Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery and two years after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published.

Augustus moved with his mother and two siblings to Quincy, Illinois in 1862 with the aid of a handful of Union soldiers. They joined a Catholic church whose congregation was largely constituted by German immigrants, and at the age of 9, Augustus began working in a tobacco factory.

Encouraged by his mother to pursue an education, he met with resistance from many area Catholic schools because parish and staff were threatened and harassed by his presence. Augustus also discussed the possibility of entering the priesthood, yet no American seminary would admit a black student.

From Illinois to Rome, Back to Illinois

In 1868, Augustus succeeded in enrolling in St. Peter School in Quincy, IL. He was confirmed at St. Peter Church at age 16 and graduated from St. Peter School at age 18.

Tolton was then tutored privately by local priests until Quincy University (then St. Francis Solanus College) admitted him in 1878 as a special student. He departed for Rome on February 15, 1880, to enter the seminary there. He expected to become a missionary priest in Africa.

Toltonwas ordained at St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome on April 24, 1886, and told he would return as a missionary to his home country of the United States in Quincy Illinois! He returned to his home town to become pastor of St. Joseph Church in Quincy, IL, a mainly black church.

Tolton became such a popular preacher that he attracted some members of local white – mostly German or Irish – congregations. He therefore also faced discrimination from other local priests, who resented what they perceived as competition.

Ministry in Chicago and the St. Augustine Society

The St. Augustine Society, an African American Catholic charitable organization, contacted Tolton about moving to Chicago to help its members found a congregation.

In late 1889, Rome granted him a transfer to Chicago, where he not only became the city’s first African American priest but also was granted jurisdiction by the archbishop over all of Chicago’s black Catholics. At the beginning he ministered to a black congregation in the basement of an old church.

Through the combined efforts of Tolton and the St. Augustine Society, as well as a private gift, enough money was raised to build most of the structure for a church building, and in January, 1894, Tolton held Mass in the new St. Monica Church on Chicago’s South Side, built by people of African American descent for that same community to worship. Tolton was its first pastor.

He soon developed a national reputation as a minister and as a public speaker, yet he devoted the majority of the remainder of his life to his congregants, most of whom lived in poverty, and to the completion of St. Monica Church.

He died shortly after succumbing to heat stroke at the age of 43.

Tolton's Legacy

Although slavery ended legally after the American Civil War, severe racial prejudice remained dominant in American life for many decades, and the Catholic Church was not immune to this evil. Participation of blacks in ordinary political, economic, social, and even religious life was hampered and curtailed at every turn.

Father Tolton lived courageously in the midst of this prejudice with the help of some Catholic priests, religious sisters, and laity. Tolton’s story is one of carving out one’s humanity as a man and as a priest in an atmosphere of racial volatility. His was a fundamental and pervasive struggle to be recognized, welcomed, and accepted.

Bishop Joseph Perry, Auxiliary Bishop of Chicago, wrote:

“He rises wonderfully as a Christ-figure, never uttering a harsh word about anyone or anything while being thrown one disappointment after another. He persevered among us when there was no logical reason to do so.”

Road to Canonization

Fr. Tolton is on the road to canonization as a saint in the Catholic Church. His cause was opened in early 2012 when he was named Servant of God, and he is currently awaiting beatification.

O God, we give you thanks for your servant and priest, Father Augustus Tolton, who labored among us in times of contradiction, times that were both beautiful and paradoxical. His ministry helped lay the foundation for a truly Catholic gathering in faith in our time.

We stand in the shadow of his ministry. May his life continue to inspire us and imbue us with that confidence and hope that will forge a new evangelization for the Church we love.

A Prayer for Father Tolton

Father in Heaven, Father Tolton’s suffering service sheds light upon our sorrows; we see them through the prism of your Son’s passion and death. If it be your Will, O God, glorify your servant, Father Tolton, by granting the favor I now request through his intercession (mention your request) so that all may know the goodness of this priest whose memory looms large in the Church he loved.

Complete what you have begun in us that we might work for the fulfillment of your kingdom. Not to us the glory, but glory to you O God, through Jesus Christ, your Son and our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you are our God, living and reigning forever and ever.


Bishop Joseph N. Perry
Francis Cardinal George, OMI
Archdiocese of Chicago



Additional Resources:

Archdiocese of Chicago Official Tolton Website

Biography of Augustus Tolton

ASALH Announces 2019 Black History Theme: Black Migrations