Helping hand from a Haitian

Baltimore Glimpses

October 18, 1994|By Gilbert Sandler

WITH HAITI'S history of turmoil, one might think only people from this country have offered help to that poor island nation, and not that the reverse is true. However, Baltimore owes a debt of gratitude to Elizabeth Lange, a woman who is believed to have fled Haiti (then known as Santo Domingo) due to civil unrest before the Civil War and eventually migrated to Baltimore where she started the first school for African Americans in Maryland.

The descendant of that original all-girls school is St. Frances Academy, located at 501 E. Chase St. in East Baltimore; it is now coeducational.

With the help of Father James Joubert, a priest and a former

Haitian government official, Elizabeth Lange, did something very daring for that time by starting the school because it was against the law to educate black people. But the diminutive, French-speaking woman was not one to accept society's imposed limits based on her race and gender. A year after the school opened, she persuaded the Vatican to approve a convent to serve the school. Her order -- the world's first for nuns of African heritage -- is the Oblate Sisters of Providence. The order has served schools and orphanages in as many as 35 states. It operates a preschool and kindergarten in Catonsville.

According to the school's history, Elizabeth Lange was part of the large community of refugees from several Caribbean nations experiencing unrest at that time who wound up in Baltimore, mostly in Fells Point. Father Joubert, realized that many of the refugee children could not benefit from technical training unless they could read and he set about to find a school for them.

He was put in touch with two young Haitian women -- one being Elizabeth Lange -- who had already started a free school in their own home. The two young women added a third Haitian woman and by June 1828 they had a school in a rented house on St. Mary's Court, with 11 girls as boarders and nine as day students. Later they moved to 610 Many say she was a saint

George St., then 48 Richmond St., and finally in 1870, to its present location. The mother house for the convent moved from that location to Catonsville in the 1960s.

It originally was called St. Frances Academy for Colored Girls; after a couple of name changes it reverted to St. Frances Academy in 1991.

The 171-student school boasts championship boys and girls basketball teams, but it has no basketball court of its own. Games are held at other schools and colleges.

Its students do better on standardized achievement tests than those in public schools and 90 percent go on to college. A few are teen-age parents, but its dropout rate is lower than that of the city's public schools.

Since it has never been affiliated with the Baltimore Archdiocese, the school must do all of its own fund-raising.

The school currently is directed by Sister John Francis Schilling, its president and principal. She does not think of the school's record as anything unusual. "Our success," she says, "is what we would expect from teachers and students who are dedicated to our particular teaching philosophy.

"That philosophy is rooted in what the school believes is a need to focus on instilling pride in their African-American heritage, on the importance of such basic values as attendance, doing homework, maintaining disciplined study habits and the building self-esteem. Learning takes place in small classes, about 20 students on average, in a serious atmosphere."

The importance of spiritual values also is impressed on the students, who mostly come from neighborhoods of broken families, high unemployment and high crime.

When not working on school-related issues, some of the Oblate sisters are busy trying to document the life and works of their founder, whom they fondly refer to as "Mother Lange." Three years ago the Vatican approved the campaign to make her a saint. "There's no doubt in my mind that she was a saint," says Sister John Francis Schilling.

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