Correction to This Article
Courtland Milloy's column about the Oblate Sisters of Providence misstated the year in which the order was founded. It was 1829, not 1831. The column also incorrectly described the founder, Mary Elizabeth Lange, as having been born a slave. She was born free.

Courtland Milloy: Amid downturn, trying time for Oblate nuns

Sister Mary Alice Chineworth
Sister Mary Alice Chineworth (Courtland Milloy - The Washington Post)
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By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, November 25, 2009

These are trying times for the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first Catholic sisterhood started by women of African descent in 1831. The recession is drying up charitable contributions, and the meager income they earn from teaching is being lost as aging nuns retire.

Construction of an infirmary at the Our Lady of Mount Providence motherhouse, the convent just outside of Baltimore where about 50 elderly sisters live, was recently halted for lack of funds.

Earlier this year, the sisters fell three months behind on their grocery bill; food delivery was stopped until the nuns paid up.

Not that anyone's complaining.

"Don't make it sound like we're destitute," said Sister Mary Alice Chineworth, who is 92 and a former superior general of the Oblate order. "We just had to plan our meals more carefully, eat as little as possible."

Then there was the heating oil crisis. The Oblates might have ended up sleeping in coats and gloves this winter were it not for an anonymous donor who paid that bill.

"That's what surprises most of us: God always comes to our aid in seemingly miraculous ways," Sister Mary Alice said, still in awe after 75 years as a nun.

Faith in divine Providence -- the Oblates have been relying on it since Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, who was born a slave in Haiti, made her way to Baltimore and started a sisterhood devoted to educating black children.

Today, the sisters run St. Frances Academy in Baltimore, where 97 percent of high school graduates go to college.

The Oblate presence had been especially strong in the District, where nuns taught at St. Augustine, Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian, St. Benedict the Moor and St. Vincent DePaul.

Sometimes working for as little as a dollar a day, they proved time and again that any child could be properly educated, regardless of race, family income, religion or lack thereof. Sister Mary Alice, who received a doctorate in higher education from Catholic University, taught fifth grade at St. Augustine.

The days of having nuns like her in urban schools have all but gone.

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