Deaconess is the office in the Christian Church committed to women for the alleviation of physical and spiritual need, especially in the care of the sick. It is of apostolic origin. In Romans 16:1 we read: "I commend unto you Phebe our sister, which is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea." It is possible that Phebe's service was a voluntary work of charity. But 1 Timothy 5:9-10 shows that the early church chose women for church service: "Let not a widow be taken into the number under threescore years old, having been the wife of one man, well reported of for good works; if she have brought up children, if she have lodged strangers, if she have washed the saints' feet, if she have relieved the afflicted, if she have diligently followed every good work."
Among the Anabaptists the deaconess office was always based on the apostolic pattern. Elisabeth Dirks, the martyr of Leeuwarden, was a deaconess. The Dordrecht Confession of April 1632, Article 9, Section 5 says, "Also that honorable old widows be ordained and chosen as servants, who besides the almoners, are to visit, comfort, and take care of the poor, the weak, the afflicted, and the needy, as also to visit, comfort, and take care of widows and orphans; and further to assist in taking care of any matters in the church that properly come within their sphere, according to their best ability."
In several Dutch Mennonite congregations the office of deaconess has been preserved from the beginning, for example, at Sneek. In most congregations it continued until the middle of the nineteenth century. Barclay reports that the Amsterdam congregation had a deaconess and three deacons, all about 60 years old. "She visited the sick and the feeble, especially the women, and when necessary provided girls to stay with them and help them and if they were poor she furnished support given by those who could afford it, or reported it to the deacons, and she was obeyed as a mother in Israel and a servant of Jesus Christ." This institution influenced the Brownists, the Plymouth Brethren, and other English Independents, as well as the entire modern deaconess system. In the Amsterdam Mennonite Church there were five deaconesses as recently as the 1950s, one of whom retired each year and was not eligible for reappointment for five years. They were appointed by the church board. In former times only married women or widows could be appointed to this office. In the 1950s two could be unmarried. The term "Mother-Deaconess" was still very commonly used. Similar arrangements existed in other Dutch Mennonite churches, as Haarlem and Utrecht. Among the deaconesses there are some who have had training for this vocation.
The German Mennonite churches also had the office of deaconess for a long time. Gerhard Roosen, the noted preacher of the Hamburg-Altona Mennonite Church, wrote that his grandmother, Rischen Quins (d. 1626), was a deaconess in the congregation for many years during her widowhood; the last deaconess of the congregation was Mayken Govens (d. 1672), the widow of Hans Govens. In Danzig the office was maintained even later; the Flemish church almost always had a deaconess. The widow Magdalena von Kampen, who was appointed as deaconess in 1788 and served until her death (1810), was the last congregational deaconess among the Mennonites of Germany. The small size of the congregations in South Germany apparently made the office of deaconess unnecessary among them; wherever there is today an active deaconess service, it is patterned after the Fliedner institutions.
The idea frequently found in Mennonite circles that Fliedner became acquainted with the office of deaconess among the Dutch Mennonites and simply adopted it is false. When he visited the Amsterdam church to raise funds he became acquainted with a deaconess system that had nearly died out, and was thereby inspired to establish his deaconess system, which developed into a flourishing institution. He wrote, "There are in the Dutch Mennonite churches still some deaconesses who are chosen by the church board, work under it, and are engaged in the care of poor women. They visit the cottages of the poor, distribute the clothing given for that purpose, help the girls get positions as maids. Neither they nor the deacons receive a salary, and are members of the most respected families in the congregation, and therein subject themselves to great sacrifice of time, etc., with great willingness. This laudable primitively Christian institution should be imitated by other Protestant faiths." But Fliedner's creation was something quite different from the Biblical-Mennonite institution of deaconess. Not the single congregation, but in a sense all Protestantism became the bearer of this work of charity. He organized large associations and established "mother houses" to give a thorough training for this vocation. It was imitated on every hand, and everywhere new mother houses arose. In 1836 at Kaiserswerth, Fliedner founded the first modern deaconess home. In 1921 there were over one hundred such homes, with about twenty thousand deaconesses. These deaconess houses bear a denominational stamp. As a rule the sisters take communion in their own mother houses and remain closely attached to them. The conditions set by the deaconess union at Herborn (district of Wiesbaden) with its seat at Berlin, are freer. Its purpose is to provide women without a vocation with vocational training and sure employment for life, thereby also promoting deaconess service. The only qualification for admission is membership in a Protestant church.
In Germany the Baden Verband instituted deaconess service among the Mennonites in 1904. While a Mennonite girl was in training in Kaiserswerth in 1894, the publisher of the Gemeindeblatt, Ulrich Hege, issued a suggestion that a Mennonite deaconess home be established. This suggestion was never carried out, and the sister in question went to America. Ten years later the matter was presented to the Aeltestenrat of the Verband. In March 1904 it was decided to look for a deaconess home that would be suitable for a Mennonite girl to receive training for the work. The deaconess homes in Strasbourg, Speyer and Karlsruhe all made very favorable replies. The last of these was chosen, because there were already friendly relations between this house and the Mennonites of the Verband and because it was more centrally located. By 1918 six others had received their training there and then served in the hospital at Kochendorf, having lived for six years in Lautenbach near Neckarsulm. With Kochendorf as a center they served in all the South German Mennonite congregations, wherever they were called. They continued to return to the mother house in Karlsruhe when they were needed there and could be spared at home. Two sisters also helped with the nursing of wounded soldiers behind the front in World War I. The management of the work was in the hands of a committee of five brethren. Funds to carry on the work were contributed. No charge was made for nursing care, though the family served, if able to do so, made a contribution.
Since the Kochendorf hospital could not give the sisters a permanent home, the Verband in 1919 bought a house in Böckingen near Heilbronn as a home for retired sisters. But because of the great shortage in residences, only two sisters had been able to make their home there up to 1921. Later the deaconess work was transferred to the Bibelheim Thomashof near Karlsruhe. The Deaconess Committee still functioned as of the 1950s, although it was much restricted because of the small number of candidates.
In 1931 the Bavarian Mennonite relief organization Christenpflicht, having received a house in Regensburg for the purpose of deaconess service, established a Mennonite deaconess work there with Sister Elise Hochsteder in charge, under the supervision of die Hensoltshöhe (Middle Franconia) mother house. Because of a lack of Mennonite candidates this work never developed.
The Mennonites of Russia founded a deaconess home of their own called Morija in Neu Halbstadt in the Molotschna settlement in Ukraine. It was a private undertaking and was built primarily with the funds furnished by Peter Schmidt of Steinbach. It was supported by voluntary contributions. It was opened on 3 December 1909, for the purpose of training deaconesses and supporting them in sickness and old age. As long as they remained in the association they received their education free of charge and were provided with all other necessities. By 1918, 89 sisters had been received. The Russian Revolution brought them a time of suffering; the house was completely plundered. Nevertheless precisely in that time they were able to render a great service in the epidemics and other sicknesses accompanying the disturbances (record of the Bundeskonjerenz held at Lichtenauon 30 June to 2 July 1918, p. 21). -- Neff
Deaconess work among the Mennonites of America represents the continuation of a practice among the Mennonites of Russia and had its origin among the General Conference Mennonites in the United States with the work of David Goerz of Newton, Kansas. He read a paper before the General Conference in South Dakota in 1890 in which he warmly advocated the deaconess work as a branch of home missions. In 1893, the General Conference in Ohio discussed the subject again, and the Board of Home Missions received instructions from the conference to further the cause. In 1898, the Bethesda Hospital was erected at Goessel, Kansas, and in the next year the conference advised that if local conditions in any community within the conference became acute, the community should act as it seemed best. Bethesda Hospital assumed the responsibility of inaugurating deaconess work.
In 1900 Frieda Kaufman offered herself to Elder David Goerz as a candidate for the deaconess cause. He arranged to have her enter Bethel College for preparatory study. In 1901 Bethel College made the deaconess cause a part of its program, intending to establish or affiliate with a deaconess institution. In 1902 the Board of Directors of Bethel College made arrangements for deaconess candidates to continue their education for specific service at the interdenominational Deaconess Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio, entering Frieda Kaufman as their first candidate. The following year Martha Richert enrolled in the same institution. In 1905 Catherine Voth was accepted as a candidate and also entered the Deaconess Hospital for a course in nursing. In the same year Ida Epp entered the Evangelical Deaconess Home and Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri. Upon completing the two-year course in nursing, Martha Richert was ordained by Elder Peter Balzer as a parish deaconess in the Alexanderwohl Church near Goessel. She served that community as well as the Bethesda Hospital until 1907 when she was married and, with her husband, Elder P. A. Penner, went as a missionary to India. Sister Frieda Kaufman, Sister Catherine Voth and Sister Ida Epp were ordained when the Bethel Deaconess Hospital was dedicated 11 June 1908. They were the first three deaconesses of this mother house.
By the 1950s 62 sisters had become members of the Bethel Deaconess sisterhood, 26 of whom were associated with the sisterhood in 1955. The deaconesses of this institution wore a special garb and were ordained by the church. Each sister had her place in the mother house, received full maintenance, a monthly allowance, an annual vacation, and a vacation allowance. She was expected to remain loyal and faithful to her calling but did not take an oath of celibacy. Should a deaconess change her mind, believing it to be God's will that she serve in some other sphere apart from the sisterhood, she presented her resignation and received an honorable discharge.
The Mennonite Deaconess Hospital in Beatrice, Nebraska, was dedicated 16 July 1911. Sister Elise Hirschler and Sister Maria Wedel, deaconesses of the Western District Conference, and Sister Katie Penner were the first deaconesses to serve here. Other deaconess candidates furthered their education here and were ordained by the Mennonite Church. Seven deaconesses served in the Mennonite Deaconess Home and Hospital in Beatrice in the 1950s.
The Salem Home and Hospital in Hillsboro, Kansas, was founded by the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren Conference in 1918. Several sisters had served as parish deaconesses prior to this but were transferred to the hospital when it was completed. A number of candidates entered for preparatory work and were ordained as deaconesses. They served in the hospital and in the home for aged. The school for both sisters and nurses has been discontinued. In the fall of 1937, the last two of the deaconesses active in the hospital left the work. Two sisters continued in the Salem Home for the Aged at Hillsboro, Kansas.
Not all deaconesses of the General Conference Mennonite churches were members of a sisterhood or served in institutions. There also were numerous congregational deaconesses without special training who did not wear a garb and who were elected rather than ordained. The Eighth Street Mennonite Church of Goshen, Indiana, had three deaconesses with duties corresponding to those of a deacon. In the constitution adopted in 1947, their duties were stated as assisting the pastor in caring for the spiritual welfare of the church and the observance of the communion. The deacons and the deaconesses together with the pastor comprised the spiritual council of the church.
The appointment of deaconesses in the Mennonite Church (MC) varied considerably, although very few congregations had deaconesses. The purpose of female servants in the church was one of good works and counseling rather than of exhortation in the church services. In certain areas, deaconesses were elected by the congregation, in others the church council gave a charge privately, and in still others the work of a deaconess was assumed without any official commission. Also the pledge of loyalty and helpfulness which was required of a deacon's or minister's wife at her husband's ordination has been regarded by some as a commission to the services of deaconess work. In no case was a congregational deaconess in this church given support. Her service was not regarded as a full-time occupation. There is no record of organized deaconess institutions in this Mennonite group. However, the Virginia Mennonite Conference (MC USA) had some deaconesses. -- LMS
"The Deaconess and Her Ministry," Mennonite Life 3 (January 1948): 30-37.
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Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 v. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe; Schneider, 1913-1967. I: 434.
Hunsperger, Edna. "The Deaconess Movement in the Mennonite Church," Sociology Seminar, 1948-49, Goshen College Historical Library. Goshen, Ind. : D. Hunsperger, 1949.
Kaufman, Frieda. Silver Anniversary Memorial: the Bethel Deaconess Home and Hospital, Newton, Kansas [Psalm 115:1]. Newton, Kan.: The Hospital, 1933.
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Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 22-25. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Neff, Christian and Lena Mae Smith. "Deaconess." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1956. Web. 24 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/deaconess.
APA style: Neff, Christian and Lena Mae Smith. (1956). Deaconess. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 24 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/deaconess.