- Deaconesses are women who perform the functions of a deacon in many Protestant churches. The modern Protestant deaconess movement began as a small ministry within the Moravian Church in 1745. That movement inspired a German Lutheran pastor, Theodor Fliedner (1800-64), to begin the Rhenish-Westphalian Deaconess Society to operate the hospital and deaconess training center he had opened in Kaiserswerth in 1836. Fliedner was initially assisted in this effort by his wife, Friedericke Munster, and a nurse, Gertrude Reichardt. At the center, women went through an ordination service in which they committed themselves to the care of the poor, the sick, and the young. Their commitments were not for life, and they could leave the order whenever they chose.in 1838, the first deaconess was sent to serve away from Kaiserswerth. Fliedner authorized a foreign deaconess motherhouse in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1849, followed by one in Jerusalem in 1851. others soon appeared in Paris and Berlin. By the mid-1860s, there were 30 motherhouses and 1,600 deaconesses serving in locations around the world.The move to the United States was facilitated by William A. Passavant (1821-94), who brought four of Fliedner's deaconesses to Pittsburgh to manage the first Protestant hospital in the United States. That work grew to include hospitals in Milwaukee, Chicago, and elsewhere, as well as several orphanages. Philadelphia businessman John Lankenau in 1884 brought seven deaconesses to run the German hospital there. His actions encouraged other deaconesses to initiate new ministries in several cities with large Lutheran populations. In the 20th century, three main centers of deaconess work emerged in the Lutheran community; they merged in 1988 to form the present Deaconess Community of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.The Lutheran deaconesses inspired the creation of a similar movement in the Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1885, Lucy Rider Meyer (1849-1922) opened the Chicago Training School (now part of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois) for women who wished to enter full-time Christian work, and in 1887 she proposed the creation of a deaconess order to employ the graduates. The proposal was approved by her church's general conference in 1888.A deaconess movement was born within the Episcopal Church in the United States in 1852, when William A. Muhlenberg of New York City organized the Sisterhood of the Holy Communion to provide nursing care at St. Luke's Hospital. Three years later, Bishop W. R. Whittingham ordained deaconesses in Baltimore, Maryland, to serve destitute women and orphans. These efforts served as a catalyst for William Pennefather to organize the Anglican "Mildmay Deaconesses," an order of teachers and nurses, for work in London. The following year, the bishop of London moved unilaterally to revive the Order of Deaconesses in the Church of England.The movement emerged among Presbyterians in the 1890s in diverse locations from Toronto, Ontario, to New Zealand. The Ewart Missionary Training Home in Toronto opened in 1897. The first deaconess in NEW ZEALAND completed her training as the decade ended, and began work at a church in Dunedin. In 1903, Jeanetta Blackie became the first superintendent of a training center in that city, the first step toward a New Zealand Presbyterian deaconess order.The deaconess movement spread worldwide in the 20th century. In 1947, the Diakonia World Federation was established to promote ecumenical relationships among the different female dia-conal associations and communities.Further reading:■ Myra Blyth and Wendy S. Blyth, No Boundaries to Compassion: An Exploration of Women, Gender and Diakonia (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1998)■ Christian Golder, History of the Deaconess Movement in the Christian Church (Cincinnati, Ohio/New York: Jennings & Pye/Eaton & Main, 1903)■ Janet Grierson, The Deaconess (London: CIO, Church House, 1981)■ Lucy Rider Meyer, Deaconesses. Biblical, Early Church, European, American, With the Story of the Chicago Training School, for City, Home and Foreign Missions, and the Chicago Deaconess Home (Chicago: Message Publishing, 1889)■ Karyn-Maree Piercy, "Presbyterian Pioneers": The Deaconess Movement, Dunedin, 1900-1920. (Dunedin, New Zealand: University of Otago, B.A. honors thesis, 2000).
Encyclopedia of Protestantism. Gordon Melton. 2005.