By George P. Matysek Jr.
BALTIMORE — The one-and-only known photograph ever taken of Mother Mary Lange held a place of prominence during a special Jan. 30 Mass celebrated by Archbishop William E. Lori at St. Frances Academy in East Baltimore.
Resting at the foot of an altar set up inside the school’s gymnasium, the more than 140-year-old black-and-white image seemed to stare stoically at a congregation of more than 300 that had gathered to celebrate Mother Lange’s recent advancement along the path to canonization.
Pope Francis declared the foundress of St. Frances Academy “venerable” June 22, 2023 — recognizing Mother Lange’s heroic virtues. Mother Lange is one of six Black Catholics in the U.S. who are candidates for sainthood, four of whom have been declared “venerable.”
Archbishop Lori, who called St. Frances Academy “holy ground” during his homily, elicited applause when he said the recognition of Mother Lange as venerable is “something of great importance, not only for this school and not only for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, but for the Catholic Church throughout the United States.”
St. Frances Academy was founded in 1828 as the first Catholic school in the country to educate Black students. Mother Lange co-founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence one year later as the world’s first sustained women’s religious congregation for Blacks. She twice served as the order’s superior general.
“We honor the courage of her conviction,” Archbishop Lori said. “We honor the depth of her faith. In her life and in her witness, we know and see what God can do when we allow God to come into our hearts — when we follow his calling and embrace his plan for us.”
The archbishop highlighted Mother Lange’s trust in divine providence. He encouraged young people to recognize God at work in their lives today and to follow in Mother Lange’s footsteps in becoming agents of change for tomorrow.
The archbishop acknowledged that there are many seemingly insurmountable challenges facing today’s generation — poverty, loneliness, isolation, ongoing divisions in society and the “terrible sin of racism” among them. Yet he insisted that God is calling people to lead lives of heroic virtue, lives that can change the world.
“Looking around at all of you today, I am full of tremendous hope because I think about all that God has yet to do in your lives,” he said.
Sister Rita Michelle Proctor, the 20th superior general of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, urged those attending the liturgy to commit themselves to carrying out Mother Lange’s admonition to “do all you can for the glory and honor of God.”
“Like her, we can be a voice for the voiceless, a light in the darkness, a beacon of hope still there for those who have no hope,” Sister Rita Michelle said. “And there are plenty of folks around us like that — offering ourselves, as she did, (in) selfless service to the people of God.”
The liturgy, held during Catholic Schools Week, was attended by St. Frances students and faculty, representatives of a variety of women’s and men’s religious communities and area educators.
Moments after the last notes of a spirited rendition of “Oh Happy Day” echoed inside the gym, several St. Frances students said they look to Mother Lange as a role model.
“She’s the entire reason this school exists,” said Laila Fisher, an 18-year-old senior. “The fact that she’s making this next chapter toward sainthood is a great accomplishment for the school and for everyone who goes here — so other people can learn who she is and what she built.”
Nicholas Myles, an 18-year-old junior, said students ask for Mother Lange’s intercession every school day during special prayers.
“Nobody would be here without what she did,” he told the Catholic Review, the Baltimore Archdiocese’s news outlet. “It took a lot of courage, especially during the time of slavery, for her to take that leap of faith in order to help Black kids get an education.”
Deacon B. Curtis Turner, head of school at St. Frances Academy, said he is humbled to have the same job once held by Mother Mary Lange.
“She was the first head of school and I believe I’m number 15,” he said. “Whenever I feel like I’m having a bad day or can’t get through something, she whispers into my ear about how much tougher it was for her. She literally had the Confederate Army 40 miles away at one point. She’s my inspiration to this day.”
St. Frances Academy planned to return the precious photograph of Mother Lange, likely taken in the early 1880s at the end of her long life, to the very room in the school where she died. It is kept on permanent display there.
Deacon Turner said the school community considers it a kind of relic.
“No question about it,” he said.