Together with a friend, Marie Magdelaine Balas, Lange began offering free education to children of color from her home. In 1829, Lange founded not only the school but also a religious order of sisters for women of color. Lange and three other women took their first vows as Oblate Sisters of Providence. Lange, who became the superior of the order, took the religious name of Mary, and became known as Mother Mary Lange.
The school founded by the sisters, St. Frances Academy, is the oldest, continuously running school for black Catholics in the United States, and remains open today. By 1860, all children of color attending Catholic school in Baltimore were educated in schools run by the Oblate Sisters.
During her lifetime, Lange and her sisters not only educated children of color, but they housed orphans and vulnerable elderly, and took in extra washing and mending and begged on the streets to support those in their care. In 1832, the sisters also cared for the terminally ill during the cholera epidemic. After the Civil War, the sisters cared for dozens of black orphans who were living in Baltimore.
On February 3, 1882, after a long life of service to others, Mother Mary Lange died. Her sainthood cause was opened in 1991.
Venerable Henriette DeLille
Henriette DeLille was born in 1812 to a wealthy French father and a free Creole woman of Spanish, French, and African descent. Henriette was groomed throughout her childhood to become a part of the plaçage system, whereby free women of color entered into common law marriages with wealthy white plantation owners. But Henriette declared that her religious convictions could not be reconciled with the plaçage lifestyle for which she was being prepared. Raised Catholic, she believed that the plaçage system violated Church teaching on the sanctity of marriage.
Working as a teacher since the age of 14, Henriette's devotion to caring for and educating the poor grew. Even though she was only one-eighth African and could have passed as a white person, she always referred to herself as Creole or as a free person of color, causing conflict in her family, who had declared themselves white on the census.
In 1836, wanting to dedicate her life to God, Henriette used the proceeds of an inheritance to found a small unrecognized order of nuns, the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Her non-white heritage had barred her from admission to the Ursuline and Carmelite orders, which only accepted white women at the time. This group would eventually become the Sisters of the Holy Family, officially founded at St. Augustine's Church in 1842. The Sisters taught religion and other subjects to slaves, even though it was illegal to do so at the time, punishable by death or life imprisonment.
Henriette Delille died in 1862 at age of 50, probably of tuberculosis. At the time of her death, her order had 12 members, but it would eventually peak at 400 members in the 1950s. The Sisters of the Holy Family are an active order in Louisiana today, with sisters working in nursing homes and as teachers, administrators and other pastoral positions.
Venerable Henriette Delille was the first U.S.-born African American to have a sainthood cause opened, according to her order.
Venerable Augustus Tolton
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Although black Catholics had been a part of the Catholic community in the United States for over three centuries at that point, Father Augustus Tolton was the very first black Catholic priest in the United States. Throughout his life, he endured extreme racism, even from fellow Catholics, but never gave up on his faith.
Tolton was born into slavery in Monroe County, Missouri in 1854 and escaped to Quincy, Illinois with his family during the Civil War. Although Illinois had outlawed slavery in 1848, it was by no means a safe haven for escapees. This is true not only of the state as a whole, but also in the Catholic churches the Tolton family attended; the white parishioners in Illinois largely rejected their fellow black fellow Catholics.
The priest at Tolton's parish approached the very bright young man and asked him if he had ever considered the priesthood. But Tolton faced a problem: Not one seminary in the United States to which he applied would accept him, because of his race. So instead he got the opportunity to study for the priesthood in Rome. He was ordained in 1889.
Father Tolton fully expected to be sent to minister in a different country— maybe even to Africa. But instead, the Vatican sent him back to the U.S., to the country that had up to that point rejected him, because the Vatican wanted people in the US to see a black priest. Tolton served for three years at a parish in Quincy, eventually accepting an invitation to come to Chicago where he led St. Monica Parish.
On July 9, 1897, Fr. Tolton collapsed during a hot day and died from sunstroke at the age of 43. A seminary set up in Baltimore by the Josephite religious order— whose charism is to minister to Black Catholics— opened not long after his death. Many young black Catholics saw the ministry of Father Tolton and were inspired to enter the seminary themselves.
His cause for canonization was launched in 2010, and he was given the title "Servant of God" by the Vatican in February 2011. The research phase of his cause concluded Sept. 29, 2014.