As I was deciding among the many ideas waiting to be explored during the waning days of African American history month I happened upon AOTUS (http://blogs.archives.gov/aotus), the blog posted by David Ferriero, Archivist of the U.S. In his recent Black History Month post Ferreiro wrote about a number of “hidden treasures”, archives that reveal the narrative of African Americans; included on his brief list was the following
The Oblate Sisters of Providence is the first successful Roman Catholic sisterhood in the world established by women of African descent. It was the work of a French-born Sulpician priest and four women, who were part of the Caribbean refugee colony which began arriving in Baltimore in the late 18th century. The order founded the oldest continuously operating school for black Catholic children in the United States and is still educating children in Baltimore. A grant from the NHPRC helped the Oblate Sisters process and make available the historical photograph and scrapbook collection of approximately 16,000 photographs dating from the 1850s to 2003, including this touching image of orphans under their care.
A quick search revealed that the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) – which coincidentally comes under the federal authority of the Archivist — had recently awarded a grant of $25,830 to the Oblate Sisters of Providence for an Historic Photograph Project. The goal of the project was “to process and make available the historical photograph and scrapbook collection” of the Sisters. The inventory had identified approximately 16,000 photographs dating from the 1850’s to 2003. A bit more probing disclosed a remarkable bit of the history of African Americans and of women religious in the U.S.
Though the Oblate Sisters of Providence was the first successful order of Roman Catholic Sisters of African descent, there was an earlier community. An earlier community, the Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross, later known as the Sisters of Loretto, formed in Kentucky in 1812 with the encouragement of a Belgian priest, Father Charles Nericnkx. When the priest died that early community dissolved.
A short time later, in 1829, Jacques Hector Nicholas Joubert de la Muraille, took a similar approach to proselytizing. Born in France, Joubert worked in Haiti before the Revolution; he escaped to the U.S., specifically to Baltimore, where he became a Sulpician priest. Assigned to serve French speaking Haitian Catholics at St. Mary’s chapel he grew concerned with his young parishioners’ problems learning to read the Catechism. His thoughts turned to founding a school – while his circle expanded to include two women of African descent who were already running a small school.
The two women who evinced an interest in consecrating their lives to God were soon joined by two other young women with a similar commitment. And thus was formed the nucleus of the nation’s first religious order for Black women. Eventually, the four novices took their vows and the first order of women religious of African descent was officially founded in 1829; the superior of the community was Elizabeth Lange, a native of Cuba. On October 2, 1831 Pope Gregory XVI blessed the Oblate Sisters of Providence.
The Sisters opened a small school for Haitian children where French was the spoken language and the essential tool for learning the tenets of their Catholic faith. In time the school grew, eventually leading to the founding of The Baltimore School for Colored Girls in 1828. Renamed St. Frances Academy the school remains as the oldest continuously operating school for African American Catholic children in the United States. As the school continued to grow, the Sisters bought more property and built a new chapel. This chapel was significant as the first chapel open to African American Catholics living in Baltimore.
Things went well until the early 1840’s when the community faced a number of problems, including the death of their original supporter, Father Joubert, in 1843. Because the primary work of the Joubert’s order, the Sulpicians, had always been the education of men, the community decided to no longer minister to the Oblates. The school languished, as did the Oblate community. The Oblates asked permission from the Bishop to beg on the streets to support their community. One of the original founders, Mother Theresa Duchemen, left the community to move to Michigan where she eventually helped found the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
The times were difficult for the fledgling community. For some time, the Oblates worked at a church served by the Redemptorists where their attention shifted to serving the city’s growing German community. It was at this juncture that a second priest, Father Thaddeus Anwander, helped the community restore a degree of financial stabaility. Anwander eventually came to be known as the second founder of the Oblates.
The struggling community next came under the directorship of the Jesuits; for the first time they began missions outside of Baltimore, including missions in Philadelphia and New Orleans. Then, in 1871, the Sisters faced yet another change when the Josephite Fathers and Brothers assumed directorship. The mission of the Josephites was to administer to African American Catholics; in this era the Oblates expanded, adding additional schools and orphanages.
In the early 1900’s the Oblates, no longer under the directorship of the Josephites, grew and adjusted to changing needs. By the 1950 there were over 300 Oblate Sisters of Providence teaching and otherwise meeting the needs of African American children. They opened foreign missions, the first of which in Havana was followed by seven Cuban missions; all were closed in the early 1960’s with the regime of Fidel Castro.
Today the approximately 80 Oblate Sisters continue to operate their southwest Baltimore motherhouse known as Our Lady of Mount Providence. The site has housed several missions over the years including Mt. Providence Junior College (1963-1966), administrative offices, and the archives of the community. Today the Oblates serve missions in Baltimore, Miami, Buffalo, NY as well as cities in Costa Rica.
For much more information, including the photographic archives, visit the Archives of the Oblate Sisters of Providence Library, 701 Gun Road, Baltimore, MD 21227, 401-242 8500, firstname.lastname@example.org. https://www.facebook.com/Oblate.Sisters.of.Providence/photos_stream