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A bold Catholic investment in inner city education

Servant of God Mother Mary Lange’s example is being embodied in the first Catholic school opened in Baltimore city in 60 years, as the Mother Mary Lange Catholic School welcomed its first 400 students in late August.

Left: Servant of God Mother Mary Lange, O.S.P. (Wikipedia); right: Oblate Sisters of Providence pay a visit to one of the preschool classrooms at the new Mother Mary Lange Catholic School in West Baltimore following dedication ceremonies Aug. 6, 2021. (CNS photo/Kevin J. Parks, Catholic Review)

It’s a safe bet that “Mother Mary Lange” is not a household name in most U.S. Catholic circles. That unhappy state of affairs may change, though, thanks to a courageous initiative now underway in Baltimore, one of America’s most troubled cities.

Who was the Servant of God Mother Mary Lange, O.S.P.?

A few years after her birth on the island of Hispaniola, the child christened Elizabeth Clarisse Lange was taken by her parents to Santiago de Cuba, as the family fled the chaos of the 1791 Haitian Revolution. Emigrating to the fledgling United States, Elizabeth seems to have lived in Charleston and Norfolk before settling in Baltimore, which had a considerable free African-American population whose numbers were being increased by refugees from Francophone Haiti. After opening a school for black children in her Fells Point home near Baltimore harbor, Elizabeth, guided by a French Sulpician priest, Father James Joubert, discerned a vocation to the consecrated life: she would help found a religious community for women of African descent, dedicated to the education of African-Americans.

Archbishop James Whitfield approved, and on July 2, 1829, Elizabeth Clarisse Lange took her first vows and, with three other “free women of color” (as they were known in those days), created the Oblate Sisters of Providence. Taking the religious name “Sister Mary,” Lange became the community’s first superior and led the new order in founding schools for girls, homes for widows and orphans, and vocational training centers for women. Risking their lives and the future of their community during a cholera epidemic in 1832, four of the sisters, including Mother Lange, nursed plague victims. Mother Mary Lange later served her community as a longtime novice mistress and, we may assume, role model, before her death in 1882.

Over a century later, in response to the longstanding local veneration of this remarkable woman, the Archdiocese of Baltimore initiated a formal study of Mother Mary Lange’s heroic virtues, and the cause for her beatification was opened in Rome in 2004. It’s successful completion, and indeed Mother Lange’s subsequent canonization, would be entirely welcome. Meanwhile, her example is being embodied in the first Catholic school opened in Baltimore city in 60 years, as the Mother Mary Lange Catholic School welcomed its first 400 students in late August.

The archdiocese raised more than $25 million to launch this state-of-the-art facility for some of the city’s most underprivileged youngsters. Partnerships with local universities, businesses, non-profit organizations, and social service agencies will enhance the school’s academic excellence with extended-care, summer, and enrichment programs. Unlike too many modern inner-city schools, which look more like bunkers or prisons, the Mother Mary Lange School was designed to be open to the hard-pressed neighborhoods of West Baltimore, better known as the locale for many of the urban depredations depicted in The Wire.

As Alisha Jordan, the new school’s principal, put it, “When you come into this building, there are so many rooms and windows where you can see out into the community. I think that’s what [Mother Lange] would have wanted.” True enough, I think, as Mother Lange would also have applauded the fact that 80-90% of the school’s students, who come from 70 zip codes and are 80% non-Catholic, will receive generous tuition assistance — and religious education.

When the bishops of the United States mandated a nationwide Catholic school system at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884, they probably didn’t realize that they were underwriting the most successful anti-poverty program in U.S. Catholic history — and arguably in American history. Today, inner-urban Catholic schools are a lifeline for children whose futures are being put at even greater risk by failing government schools and hidebound teachers’ unions that resist educational reform while engaging in various forms of ideological indoctrination. That lifeline is being threatened by the financial pressures on many dioceses, and while vigorous efforts are underway throughout the country to save inner city Catholic schools, the pandemic has made a difficult situation even harder.

It takes vision, courage, and faith to launch a multi-million-dollar adventure in top-flight inner-urban Catholic education under these circumstances: the kind of vision, courage, and faith that led a poor black immigrant to start a new religious order for African-American women in the antebellum South; the kind of vision, courage, and faith that has now led to the opening of the well-named Mother Mary Lange Catholic School in Baltimore, my beloved, if hard-pressed, hometown.


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About George Weigel 353 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), and Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021).

5 Comments

  1. God bless her work and the work of religious teaching kids, especially in less fortunate neighborhoods. This is the best chance not only for education, but for evangelization, that some of these students will have.

  2. Great story. Another example of an exemplary Catholic that hopefully be canonized a saint. Hopefully the Catholic School System in Baltimore can grow.

    To go further, another tragedy of post VC2 is the destruction of the American Catholic School System. In Illinois the goal seems to be to eliminate any Catholic school that does not have robust funding. If one wonders why the Churches are empty of young people, its the lack of even minimally training provided by the Catholic schools, a key ingredient to the destruction of the Catholic Culture.

    Bishops instead of looking to defund and destroy (D&D) Catholic schools need to find ways to improve and expand. Instead of pursuing their D&D campaign, innovative strategies need to be considered. One example is how the Sacred Heart School in Grand Rapids was resurrected from the brink of elimination. There are other examples. An idea to consider is whether Catholic teachers retired from public scools or other retired solid Catholics with degrees could sign up to teaching for modest pay to reduce tuition cost, as a means to reduce te financial burden on parents. Anyways Bishops need to look at all modes of keeping Catholic schools operational and dump the current (D&D) approach.

  3. In January 2021, the Archdiocese of Chicago released a statement – The Archdiocese of Chicago announced today that four Catholic schools will close and two will consolidate operations at the end of this school year, effective June 30, 2021.

    In April 2021, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles reported that they would be closing six Catholic elementary schools due to rising costs, declining enrollment, and pandemic-related issues. (Parents lost jobs, so were unable to afford the $4-6,000 tuition. Perhaps the students lost the ability to even attend school?) The National Catholic Reporter pointed out that the schools primarily enrolled children of working-class Latino families.

    In July 2020, the Archdiocese of New York closed 20 Catholic schools and merged three others. Perhaps more closed in 2021. I didn’t look for more bad news.

    So what’s the reason for hurrahed hoopla about one more multi-million dollar Catholic archdiocesan loss-leader? The American RCC hierarchy seem hell-bent on self destruction as they continue to pursue dead headlines. Mr. Weigel’s gift is to focus on a tiny ember amid a mountain of ash.

  4. Perhaps that tiny ember will start a new blaze. Jesus came to set the world on fire, how he wished it was already started. Keep fanning the flames, keep the faith in Jesus Christ, and keep praying. Pray, hope, and do not be afraid.

  5. What about this idea:
    “A preferential option for the poor” should be maintained in our Catholic Schools. If we find that we cannot afford to keep our schools open to the poor, the Church should be ready to use its resources for something else which can be kept open to the poor. We cannot allow our Church to become a church primarily for the middle-class and rich while throwing a bone to the poor. The priority should be given to the poor even if we have to let the middle-class and rich fend for themselves.
    Practically speaking, the Catholic Schools must give up general education in those countries where the State is providing it. The resources of the Church could then be focused on “Confraternity of Christian Doctrine” and other programs which can be kept open to the poor. These resources could then be used to help society become more human in solidarity with the poor. Remember, the Church managed without Catholic Schools for centuries. It can get along without them today. The essential factor from the Christian point of view is to cultivate enough Faith to act in the Gospel Tradition, namely, THE POOR GET PRIORITY. The rich and middle-class are welcome too. But the poor come first.

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