The Oblate Sisters of Providence was the first Catholic religious order for African American women. Founded in Baltimore in 1829, it began its ministry among black Catholics who fled Haiti for the United States in the first decades of the nineteenth century. The organization provided a religious home to African American women and a Catholic education for thousands of students who attended Oblate-run schools across the United States.
The Oblate Sisters began as a collaboration between James Joubert, a French-born Catholic priest, and Elizabeth Lange and Marie Balas, Haitian women living in Baltimore. In 1818 the women began a school for free black girls in an effort to help them learn the catechism. They ran the school out of their home until 1828, when Joubert promised the backing of his religious order, the Sulpicians. With this support the women founded St. Frances Academy. The following year, Lange, Balas, and two others took their vows as the first members of the Oblate Sisters of Providence.
Though the education of black girls in Baltimore was the Oblates' primary goal, they quickly extended their service to other areas. The Oblates worked as nurses during the cholera epidemic of 1832, opened their doors to orphans and widows in need, and started schools for boys and adults across the United States. Their educational efforts were the basis of the creation of two black parishes, St. Frances Xavier in Baltimore, and St. Ann in Washington, D.C.
But their successes did not come without struggle. Anticatholicism, poverty, and racism all impeded the Oblates' work. During the 1830s, the Oblates' novitiate stood under constant threat from anticatholic rioters in Baltimore. Then after Joubert's death in 1843, the Oblates lost the support of the Sulpician order, though they made ends meet by doing washing and sewing. During this time, Baltimore's archbishop, Samuel Eccleston, urged the Oblates to disband, and only the timely support of St. John Neumann and the Redemptorist order enabled the Oblates to continue their work. Still, poverty forced the closure of several Oblate schools in the mid-nineteenth century. And during the Civil War racism as well as poverty threatened the survival of the Oblates. The sisters had to briefly go into hiding in 1864, and during the 1870s Oblate-run schools in New Orleans had to close when the archbishop de-emphasized education for blacks.
In this century, Oblates and their supporters have been active in urging the Catholic church to pay greater attention to black Catholics in the inner cities. In 1970, the principal and faculty of St. Frances Academy picketed the archdiocese of Baltimore to demand more financial support for Baltimore's black parishes. Their protests were successful, and the Oblates' educational and religious efforts continue in Baltimore and elsewhere in the United States and in Costa Rica.
Oblate Sisters of Providence