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History and Tradition: Catholic Education in Baltimore

Little formal education for girls existed in America until Elizabeth Ann Seton established her school in Baltimore (1808) and St. Joseph's Academy and Free School at Emmitsburg, Maryland (1810).  Another brave religious woman, Mary Elizabeth Lange, founded the first school for children of color in Baltimore in 1828.

Their stories follow:

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

born August 28, 1774 – died January 4, 1821

Elizabeth was born to a distinguished Episcopalian family on August 28, 1774. Her mother died when Elizabeth was barely three, and her father, a physician and professor at King's College (later Columbia University in New York), saw that his daughter was educated. He was not a religious man, but a humanitarian one who taught Elizabeth service to others and the virtue of concern for people in need.

In 1794, at the age of 19, Elizabeth married a well-to-do businessman, William Magee Seton. She gave birth to three daughters and two sons. Unfortunately, William's health failed, along with his business and fortune. The couple sailed to Italy in search of a cure, but after a month in quarantine, William died in December of 1803. They had been on their way to visit some business associates of the Seton's, the Filicchi brothers, who welcomed the widow into their home.

After her husband's death, Elizabeth stayed in Italy, and there, her strong natural piety was drawn to Catholicism. When she returned to New York, her family and friends protested the attraction Elizabeth had for the Church, but she persevered and made her profession of faith in Roman Catholicism on March 14, 1805. This left her isolated from her family and subsequently, brought on financial difficulties. She obtained a teaching position, but the school failed financially amidst unkind rumors that she was using the school for proselytizing.  She then opened a boarding home for boys attending a nearby school in in New York. She welcomed a request from a Catholic Sulpician priest to open a school for girls in Baltimore. This allowed her to support her family, attend daily Mass, and receive Communion, something which had been exceptionally difficult to accomplish in New York City. This first Catholic school for girls on Paca Street in Baltimore began the ministry of a group of women dedicated to educating children and caring for the poor, and became the basis for a religious community. In 1809, the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph's was officially founded by Elizabeth in the Stone House at Emmitsburg. Mrs. Seton became known as Mother Seton. She and her first companions moved to Emmitsburg where they adopted a modified form of the Common Rules of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul. They expanded rapidly and founded orphanages, which always included schools.

Elizabeth Ann Seton died on January 4, 1821. She is credited as a pioneer in Catholic education, but predates the parochial school system in the United States, which was launched by the First Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1852. Today, six orders of sisters trace their roots to her work. She was canonized in 1975 as the first native-born canonized saint of the United States.

Mother Mary Lange (Elizabeth Clarissa Lange)

Born circa 1784 - died February 3, 1882

Elizabeth Clarissa Lange's parents were refugees who fled to Cuba from the revolution taking place in their native Santo Domingo, known today as Haiti. Her father was a gentleman of significant financial means and social standing. Her mother was Creole. However, in the early 1800's, young Elizabeth left Santiago de Cuba to seek peace and security in the United States. In about 1813, she came to Baltimore, Maryland, where a great influx of Catholic Santo Domingo refugees were settling. It did not take long to recognize that the children of her fellow refugees 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. She used her own money and home to educate children of color. For ten years Elizabeth and her friend, Marie Magdaline Balas, offered free education in their Baltimore row house. In 1828, their efforts and resources helped to establish a school named St. Frances of Rome Academy.

Unfortunately, Elizabeth soon found that the demand on her resources outweighed the supply. Her prayers were answered in the person of Reverend James Hector Joubert, SS, who was encouraged by Monsignor James Whitfield, Archbishop of Baltimore, to present Elizabeth Lange with the challenge to found a religious congregation for the Christian (Catholic) education of black children. He would provide the direction, solicit financial assistance, and encourage other women of color to become members of this, the first religious congregation of women of African heritage.

On July 2, 1829, Elizabeth and three other women took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to the Archbishop and the chosen superior. Now the founder and first superior of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, Elizabeth was now Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange. She was superior general from 1829 to 1832 and from 1835 to 1841. This congregation educated and evangelized African Americans and responded to the needs of the times. Thus, the Oblate Sisters educated youth and provided a home for orphans. Slaves who had been purchased and freed were educated. They nursed the terminally ill during the cholera epidemic of 1832, sheltered elderly, and even served as domestics at St. Mary's seminary in times of crisis.

She sought spiritual direction from the President of St. Mary's College. Her interest was education for free black girls, in a school that would include music, the classics, and fine arts in the curriculum. The school records of 1830s and 40s show the students involved in choirs, concerts, and recitals. To direct her students to strive for excellence, medals and awards were given in various subjects. Her school also provided vocational training for students, which included household arts such as fine sewing and embroidery. Their skills were put to use in the business of making vestments for church services. Scripture and religious instruction were offered to the young ladies as a legacy to pass on to others.

Mother Mary Lange's deep faith enabled her to persevere against all odds. It was not easy to be a free black woman teaching within the confines of the Catholic Church. At that time in history, there were theologians arguing in Rome that black people have no souls. After the deaths of her benefactors, Father Joubert and Archbishop Whitfield, the new Archbishop of Baltimore, Father Eccleston, a native Marylander whose family owned slaves, ordered the Oblates to disband. Mother Lange refused. Though public opinion was on the side of the Archbishop, the archbishop did not use his power to dissolve the community.

In 1870, only five years after the Civil War, a building was erected at the corner of Chase Street and Forrest Place. It has been the home of St. Frances Academy ever since. Throughout the decades, 501 East Chase Street has served as a convent, an orphanage, a boarding school for females, a co-educational high school, a resource for neighbors in emergency situations, and a center for neighborhood activities.

Mother Lange was a living witness to the teachings of Jesus, sharing and giving all of her worldly goods. A spiritual and spirited woman, she lived through various degrees of success, disappointment and opposition until God called her on February 3, 1882. The room where she died at St. Frances Academy is dedicated to the memory of her good works.

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

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