Organized in the slave-holding city of Baltimore, Maryland in 1828, the Oblate Sisters of Providence dedicated themselves as “a Religious society of Coloured Women . . . [who] renounce the world to consecrate themselves to God, and to the Christian education of young girls of color.” Early in the sisterhood’s existence Oblate co-foundress Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange had explicitly articulated their consciousness of their exceptionalism as “persons of color and religious at the same time” who nevertheless sought “the respect which is due to the state we have embraced and the holy habit which we have the honor to wear” in a racist society. From their inception the sisterhood’s race and their education ministry had constituted two seminal components of their charism, self-identity, and self-concept.

However, as the Oblate Sisters pursued their original ministry of education into the twentieth century they confronted new obstacles. In feverish competition with public school systems which offered such advantages as tuition free access, secondary or high school educational opportunities, and certified, accredited teaching staffs, the Catholic hierarchy established parochial high schools. This development required advanced degrees for secondary teachers from Catholic colleges and universities, all of which at the time denied access to black students— including women religious.

This essay examines how this pioneering sisterhood exercised agency on its own behalf as it strove to advance its own educational opportunities as well as those of its pupils by expanding its support networks within ecclesial constituencies. It further demonstrates how these efforts required the sisterhood to re-examine—if not re-frame—its own understandings of the intersectionality of its existence as “persons of color and religious at the same time” in Jim Crow America.


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