Lutheran Deaconesses

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.

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8 Responses to Lutheran Deaconesses

  1. Dawn says:

    I came across this blog (via this post) after doing a Google such for Lutheran Nuns. After spending some time poking around, I wanted to leave a quick comment that I’m finding the blog interesting & informative.


  2. I met a Lutheran deaconess, a friend of my grandmother from Mainz in Alsace; this was in the 1930s. I remember Sister Christina in a black habit—she did not speak English, just German and French so I was ignored. Grandma never passed on any compliments to me so I guess I was just part of the furniture as far as SC was concerned. She thought Hitler walked on water and eventually returned to Germany in the late 1930s. Wonder what happened to her since Hitler was Catholic(!?) and many Lutheran pastors were in the camps but since she thought he was so great, I guess she survived. She probably went along with Hitler’s claim: Gott mit uns!—God is with us!
    Wonder if she went along with the camps—I remember she never smiled at ANYone, very solemn and morose. Maybe she disliked the young—she would have been happy in the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland, I am sure.

  3. Bibiana says:

    I had heard of Lutheran nuns, but never learned about them. Whatever a woman’s religion, it is a great thing to serve people unselfishly. God bless them.

  4. Mark Mueller says:

    There is a community of German deaconesses at the Fellowship Deaconry in Liberty Corner, New Jersey. They run a farm, a summer camp for kids, and an assisted living facility on the property.

    • Barbara Chardenet says:

      This is very interesting, the New Jersey Deaconate—I have never met another deaconess since Sister Christina, but as a child back in the Thirties, would occasionally see a woman in the black dress but no wimple and Mom would explain that the lady was a deaconess like Sister Christina.
      Now the Catholic nuns wear street clothes—must be so much more comfortable! and it is difficult to pick them out as well. Thank you for your comment—I was not aware that the deaconate was still alive and well. The Catholic habit reminds me of my stalwart Methodist grandmother from the English side who as a child announced she was going to be a nun when she grew up. Liked the
      costume, I guess, and always had a yearn to be in the theatre; when she announced same to
      the family as a young adult, my great-grandmother said if that happened she was no longer her daughter. Theatre people were on the road to you-know-where. End of discussion!

  5. dj says:

    Very interesting and in my home state as well awesome thanks

  6. Rev. Dr. John T. Allen says:

    Thank you for your article. I have known many of Deaconesses both of the Lutheran and the Evangelical Reformed Church. I am sure there were some of the Sister liked the one you spoke of . The Lutheran Church here in USA had 9 motherhouses. I was consecrated a deacon at the Norwegian Lutheran Deaconess Hospital in Chicago. The Brothers were able to marry, but the Sisters remained unmarried. Many left to marry and become pastor’s wives and continued to serve the Church. Most of the Lutheran Hospitals in this country had connection to the Diaconate.The uniform was much like that of a nurse and the cap usually was different from house to house. Only the Sisters form the ULCA in Baltimore wore a veil. The deaconesses I knew were filled with joy and years of service. The Diaconate gave to women of an older generation freedom to have a profession and security in their old age. In our Norwegian tradition the Deaconess first needed to know Jesus as her Savior. At the present time the ELCA is the only Diaconate that is connect with the history of the Deaconess Movement in the USA. THe Mo. Synod started a Diaconate, but it did not have the community life as the others.

  7. Hermann KL Raab says:

    My Grandmother was origanly a deaconess. She was a sister/nurse in the late 1890’s to early 1900’s in Germany. My grandfather met her on his travels & wrote to her over 7 to 8 years trying to get her to leave & marry him which she finnally did. A year later my Dad was born & 6 months later he died of a heart attack. She had a hard time living but then came to America in 1911 thru Ellis Island when my dad qho was 11 yrs. old at that time. I knew her very well as a child because she read many German, in German fairy tales to me. At 4 yrs. old I spoke no english as she spoke no english. So I spoke only German to her as I was around her all the time & she spoke no english. My oldest sister has her cross she wore around her neck that is made of Silver & ceder wood from Lebinon ceders of Lebinon. She past away many years ago when I was11yrs. old. I was born in Buffalo, NY in the Deaconess Hospital in Buffalo, NY. She is buried in the Evergreen Cematary in Buffalo. I am now 77 years old but I still remember her with fond memeries of our times. Hermann

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