I would have to suggest that Lutheran deaconesses are not familiar to too many people (especially if one is not Lutheran). I remember talking to a physician friend who worked out Lakenau Hospital in Wynnewood, PA. He had no idea that Lutheran Deaconesses were affiliated with the hospital at one point in its history. In fact, he had never heard of Lutheran Deaconesses. This is rather unfortunate because this group of women religious has quite an interesting history and some even argue that they were the forerunners of ordination for women in both the Evangelical Lutheran Church and the various churches of the Anglican communion which allow women to be ordained to the priesthood. The history of the work of these women, particularly those in the Missouri Synod churches, is detailed in a book called “In the Footsteps of Phoebe” by Cheryl D. Naumann.
The first deaconesses came from Germany where a motherhouse was founded in 1836 in Kaiserswerth by Theodor Fliedner and Friederike Münster. The first deaconesses came to the United States through the efforts of William Passavant, D.D. who encountered these women in Germany. These first four Lutheran Deaconesses in the United States worked in what is now Passavant Hospital in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Shortly after the arrival of these four deaconesses, John Lakenau brought another seven from Germany to work in the German Hospital in Philadelphia (now Lakenau Medical Center). The deaconesses pretty much functioned in much the same way as did various orders of Roman Catholic sisters who administered and nursed in various hospitals. When the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America was formed by the joining of various synods, communities in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Omaha combined and formed the Deaconess Community of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. However, synods which did not join the ELCA also maintained the office of the deaconess as discussed in the aforementioned book. Today, the deaconesses continue to work as nurses, administrators, teachers, counselors, spiritual directors and a host of other ministries.
The photo included with this post is actually a CDV. I discovered it on eBay where it was originally listed as a photo of a nurse. I was quite pleased when I discovered it as these photos do not appear quite often. The CDV was originally done in Germany and shows the original dress of a deaconess in that country and of the first in this country (today, Lutheran Deaconesses do not wear any sort of habit, but I have heard that some of the older generation still wore a type of head covering up until recent times).
… another piece of interesting American history that is often overlooked.