Oblate Sisters serve God by teaching black children Ordered Lives

February 20, 1994|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Sun Staff Writer

As wintry light filters through the stained-glass windows of Mount Providence, several dozen nuns reaffirm their devotion. Wearing habits, veils and silver wedding bands, holding hymnals flavored with spirituals, the women appear joyful, serene and a bit mysterious.

On the wall behind the altar are words which have helped to define them: Therefore Go And Teach All Nations.

These women belong to the world's first order of nuns of African heritage, the Oblate Sisters of Providence. Founded in Baltimore 165 years ago with a mission to teach "colored" children, the Oblate Sisters have served schools and orphanages in as many as 35 states. Now, as is the case in other religious orders, their numbers have dwindled and their members have aged. But their sense of purpose remains strong, bolstered by a history of forbearance through times that were never kind.

The sisters have worshiped in basement chapels. They have weathered the animosity of white Catholics who objected to seeing black women in habits. They have survived periods in which church officials, pessimistic about their survival, advised them to "return to the world."

Sister Anthony Garnier, the 69-year-old sacristan who helps prepare for Mass at the Catonsville motherhouse, remembers the days when black nuns were permitted to take communion only after white communicants had finished.

"We have an extra blessing from God as a race," she says. "Being from the South, I can tell you some awful stuff. But my mother said that eventually God would take care of you. And that's also what our order believes: If we put things in God's hands, God will provide."

Providentia providebit: The Oblate Sisters' belief is rooted in the order's extraordinary beginnings. In 1817, Elizabeth Lange, founder of the order, came to Baltimore from the Caribbean with two major handicaps: She was a free black woman in a slave state and a Catholic in what was then a predominantly Protestant city. Furthermore, she spoke only French.

At the time, Baltimore had become home to thousands of refugees from political upheavals in Santo Domingo and other islands. When the emigrants arrived, they found a segregated society where their children could not attend schools.

With the help of Father James Joubert, a priest of the Sulpician order, Elizabeth Lange started a school that offered free education for black children. Next, she persuaded the Vatican to approve a convent to serve this mission.

When Rome officially recognized the Oblate Sisters of Providence as a religious order, it became the first within the Catholic church to devote itself to teaching black children. (The Latin root of "oblate" refers to someone who offers his or her life to some form of work.)

Over the next century, the Oblates opened and operated many schools around the country, including St. Frances Academy, Baltimore's oldest institution for educating black children. (Founded as a four-year high school for girls, it is now co-educational.)

Before the days of Vatican II, school desegregation and increased career opportunities for women, the order had almost 300 members who helped staff schools in many states. Now the religious congregation works in schools in a handful of cities -- Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia, Buffalo, Trenton and Charleston -- as well as serving several schools and missions in Costa Rica.

Today 147 nuns carry on the work and most of them live at the motherhouse. About half are foreign-born. The order has one white member, Sister John Francis Schilling, who works as principal and president of St. Frances Academy. (The order's founding rules state the Oblate Sisters cannot turn away aspiring nuns because of race.) Fewer than 10 nuns are under the age of 40, says Sister Claudina Sanz, the order's superior general.

In Baltimore, the Oblates work at several ministries. The nuns run St. Frances Academy as well as an after-school program for the residents of Johnston Square and an evening tutorial and outreach program. Recently, several sisters have served a program helping AIDS-affected families.

"Their tradition of teaching those who otherwise would have been so neglected is one that we all have to take to heart," says Archbishop William Keeler of Baltimore.

The order also oversees the care of close to 70 children from Catonsville -- mostly white -- who attend day care at the motherhouse during the week. Although the mission of the order has always been the Christian education of black children, Oblates have also founded and taught at schools with predominantly white populations.

These days, the order also faces an increasing need to care for its elderly members, so it recently sold property in St. Louis to help provide for its retirees.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.