Educating Black children, especially in a slave state, was either forbidden or strongly discouraged because of the second-class status of people of color in the first half of the 1800s.
But Mother Mary Lange, who left Cuba and settled in Baltimore by 1813, did not let this deter her and instead saw an opportunity. Along with a friend, she opened a school for Black children in her home in the Fells Point area.
Lange carried that mission to educate and care for Black children with her as one of the founders of the first Roman Catholic sisterhood established by and for women of African descent. The Oblate Sisters of Providence was one of the first in the world to welcome women of color and supported their religious life as others turned them away. The convent accepted those who were born into slavery, ignoring racist and sexist viewpoints that Black women, especially those previously enslaved, lacked the virtue to pursue religious lives.
“There’s no reason why we should be in existence when you think about us as women of color. But, we’re here, and we’re here by God’s grace and by God’s providence,” said Sister Rita Michelle Proctor, superior general of the Oblate Sisters of Providence.
The idea for the Oblate Sisters was sparked by the work of the Rev. James Hector Joubert, who around the same time started educating immigrant children on Catholic principles and realized that many of them had trouble learning because they couldn’t read. Joubert sought Lange and three other women to dedicate a religious order to educating Black children. They took their official vows in 1829 and the roots of the Oblate Sisters of Providence were planted in Baltimore.
But just because these women took their vows didn’t mean society accepted them as nuns. They were often ridiculed when wearing their habits publicly because of prejudice.
“These are women who broke some of the nation’s oldest and most difficult racial and gender barriers. These are women who served as desegregation foot soldiers of Catholic higher education prior to the Brown [Supreme Court] decision,” said Shannen Williams, an associate professor of history at the University of Dayton and author of “Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle.”
One hundred and ninety-four years later, the Oblate Sisters are still serving the needs of Baltimore and other communities they’re in. The Oblate Sisters run a math and reading center and a day care center at their convent in Baltimore County. The original school started in the convent is now St. Frances Academy in East Baltimore.
Since 1991, the sisters have led an effort to get Mother Mary Lange recognized as a saint. In June, Lange was declared Venerable, the second step in the process, and now needs two proven miracles to be declared a saint. Miracles these days are often attributed to scientifically inexplicable healings that are thoroughly investigated.
Sometimes the sisters look to Mother Mary Lange for guidance, including Sister Magdala Marie Gilbert, who said she talks to her through prayer about stability in the world, for people to stop killing each other and to send more nuns to the convent.
Ask any of the Oblate Sisters of Providence why Lange should be a saint and they’ll often talk about the contributions she made throughout her life and her devotion to Catholicism.
“I think that the woman who founded us was courageous, was holy, was in love with God, loved to serve the people of God, and do what she needed to do in those days, in those times,” said Proctor.
The Oblate Sisters are dealing with their own challenges as fewer people pursue religious life, whether it be because of less interest in organized religion or less information about how to become a nun or priest.
There were roughly 36,000 nuns in 2022 in the United States, compared to nearly 80,000 in 2000 and 102,000 in 1990, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a nonprofit affiliated with Georgetown University that follows the Catholic religion.
In the 1950s, the Oblate Sisters of Providence had over 300 nuns. Today, there are between 30 and 35. The median age is 82, according to Proctor, who visited the Oblate Sisters often throughout her youth.
Proctor doesn’t let the deficit influence their purpose, though. In today’s society, “nobody’s listening to anyone” and even a few speaking up and doing the work to promote the cause can make a difference.
The Oblate Sisters house a vocation department to field interests in joining the order and list the process and other vocation stories on their website.
“As long as there’s one Oblate Sister there, we are all there,” said Proctor during a summer Mass.
Sharon Knecht, an in-house archivist at the convent, believes the Oblate Sisters have been around so long because of their flexibility and a willingness to always do what’s needed.
“Right from the beginning, they’ve been doing things that have never been done before,” Knecht said.
And they often did impactful things without recognition. In 1832, Sister Mary Anthony Duchemin, an early Oblate Sister, cared for then-Archbishop James Whitfield and a housekeeper after volunteering her services during the cholera epidemic in Baltimore. Sister Mary caught cholera as she cared for others and died. Little to no recognition was given to Black nuns back then for helping during the epidemic; the city a century later recognized Sister Mary.
“It’s important that we serve the people of God and that God recognizes and is pleased with what we do. … I don’t think we as a community are caught up or any religious community is caught up in the recognition part,” said Proctor.
After Father James died in 1843, the convent fell on hard times. Enrollment dwindled and sisters asked the bishop if they could ask people on the streets for financial assistance to support the convent. One of the original founders also left the order and they were under different directorship for several years.
Today, many of the women interested in the Oblate Sisters come by way of Africa, according to Sister Marcia Hall, who’s been with the convent for 25 years and is a vocation director. The sisters aren’t sure why more don’t come from the U.S., but say when they reach out that is who is interested.
“This isn’t a job, it’s a lifestyle choice,” Hall said, adding that there’s a vetting process, including the submission of a spiritual autobiography, to figure out if the applicant is a good fit. Applicants have to be willing to wait out the process, which doesn’t happen overnight, and if they’re younger they’ll likely get a disproportionate amount of work because there are many older nuns, Hall said.
Sister Mary Pauline Tamakloe recently made her final dedication to religious life.
The light brown pews in the chapel of Our Lady of Mount Providence Convent were nearly filled front to back in mid-August. Many attendees dressed in different shades of blue, Sister Tamakloe’s favorite hue and the color of Ghana’s societal uniforms. Tamakloe made her way down the center aisle of the pews wearing elaborate beads around her neck as she danced and sang along with a Ghanaian choir.
“We wear beads and wear all those things for the excitement or for the joyful moments. And so we have to dance,” said Tamakloe.
Each of Sister Mary’s strides drew her closer to officially becoming an Oblate Sister. Closer to a life of obedience, chastity and poverty.
Tamakloe said her journey was a 20-year process and “doesn’t play about it.” She became a nun because she’s experienced the “greatness of God” in her life and in return wanted to serve him. She’s inspired by the story of Mother Mary Lange and relates to Lange’s tenacity. The former computer programmer has taught religion at Cardinal Shehan School in Baltimore for over five years.
“There’s a joy if you know who you are coming to serve. There’s a joy in that process,” Tamakloe said.
Sister Rita said the doors of the Oblate Sisters are open, especially to those with a calling like Tamakloe, and they’re available to serve the community.
“The Oblates Sisters are here for you,” she said. “And when I say that, I mean, we are still called to be in service to our brothers and sisters.”