Unlocking the History of the Deaconesses

Deaconess candidates, 1914

By Neva Rae Fox

A 100-year-old gold-embossed book may be the key to uncovering important Episcopal Church history that might otherwise have been lost. The Memorial Book of the Retirement Fund for Deaconesses offers details to the early days of the Order of Deaconesses.

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The Memorial Book was found in a corner of historic St. Thomas Church in Christiansburg, Virginia. In December it was delivered to the New Jersey-based Fund for the Diaconate and to a core group of deacons dedicated to researching history.

“We have recovered a piece of history,” said the Rev. Deacon Keith McCoy, president of the fund.

Deacon Keith McCoy examines the book for the first time

The struggle to put the pieces together was sparked by efforts to present the Order of Deaconesses for inclusion in Lesser Feasts and Fasts. The Deaconess Calendar Day Workgroup of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music presented a report to include the deaconesses, active from 1857 to 1970. The request is expected to face scrutiny by General Convention this summer.

This committee work opened the door to examine deaconesses and their contributions to society and the church.

The Rev. Deacon Theresa Lewallen, fund grants administrator, transported The Memorial Book, which provides a list of donations to help deaconesses in retirement, the most recent dating back more than six decades to the 1960s.

“When I opened the book, I noticed that it has calligraphies, it has early dates, and it also has large and small donations in honor of, in memorial of, or just a donation,” she said.

The next step for the fund is to review the entries, matching the donors to an incomplete list of deaconesses. The deacons could not estimate how long this painstaking task would entail. Nonetheless, they are dedicated to their ultimate goal of unearthing the names and history of these courageous, and mostly overlooked, women.

The Deaconesses of Baltimore

“Deaconesses are an old religious community, dating to the earliest days of the church,” McCoy said. In about 500 they “faded away” in the Western Church, McCoy added, only to be reestablished in the early 1800s as part of the Lutheran social-gospel movement in Kaiserwerth, Germany.

In the Episcopal Church, this undertaking started in September 1857 in Baltimore with six women. While some of them are known — Adeline Blanchard Tyler, Catherine Minard, Carrie Guild, and Evaline Black — others have been lost to history. “We don’t know the names of the other two,” McCoy said.

Their first call to ministry was nursing wounded soldiers in Maryland.

“Deaconesses never did anything liturgical,” McCoy said. “Theirs was a servant ministry. They founded and operated schools, hospitals, orphanages.”

The call to deaconesses spread to other parts of the church. Deaconesses became official at General Convention in 1888. Some of the more recognizable names of deaconesses over the years are Harriett Bedell in Florida and Anna Alexander in Georgia (the winner of the 2018 Lent Madness Golden Halo).

The Diocese of New York joined the movement early on. According to documents offered by Wayne Kempton, archivist and historiographer of the Diocese of New York, “The New York Training School for Deaconesses was founded in October 1890, by the Rev. William R. Huntington, D.D., as a school where women might be trained to meet the requirements of the Canon on Deaconesses, drawn by him and passed largely through his efforts.”

Construction started in 1910 for a school building on the close of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine.

The New York archives has more than 30 years’ worth of newsletters, annual reports, reports to General Convention, and other key materials spanning from 1938 to 1968.

Mark Duffy, canonical archivist and director of the Episcopal Church Archives, said there are “two excellent general histories. The first, written by Mary Donovan in 1986, provides an overview of the deaconess movement through 1900. The second, written by Pamela Darling in 1994, covers the period from 1900 to 1965.”

Early donations (click to enlarge)

There are still gaps to fill. “As we try to collect our history, we don’t have many items,” McCoy said. “The records of 1927 to mid-1970s were microfilmed, but we don’t know where they are. We’re just trying to find out where we came from, our history, anything we can proclaim as a part of our history. We as deacons have been too busy doing ministry to stop and collect these stories.”

The fund continues to follow leads in various places, including the dioceses of New York and Chicago, the New York Public Library, and the corporate archives of Citibank.

“We’re not even midway in our journey,” McCoy said. “But we are definitely on the road.”

“The Episcopal Church over the past 50 years has really forgotten about the role and contribution to the church by the deaconesses,” said the Rev. Deacon Geri Swanson of New York. “They were the heroines of the church. Many died in genteel poverty, penniless. If it weren’t for the fund, they would have had nothing. If we don’t preserve the history, it will be lost.”


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