All Christian vocation and ministry has its beginning with our Lord Jesus Christ.  The starting point of the office of deaconess is with him, and his relation to the women of his day.  He afforded woman a higher place than she ever had before.

            In the Orient, woman was a mere possession of man, a chattel.  In Greece, her life was one of seclusion and obscurity.  In Rome, more honor was paid woman, but they were under the absolute domination of their fathers and later their husbands.  Although the position of women was higher among the Hebrews, and there were several rare women who had the gift of prophecy, yet a Jewish man still blesses God who has not made him “a gentile, a slave,…or a woman.”  Women could only enter into the outer parts of the Temple; they were excused from keeping a great deal of the Law; their vows could be voided by husband or father, and their word was not taken at law.  They were respected and honored in home life, but looked upon as inferior.  When in the fullness of time God sent his Son, Christ humbled himself to be born of a woman, whom all generations shall call blessed.

            Throughout his ministry, our Lord showed an especial tenderness toward women and children.  He condemned the prevailing idea of divorce, and proposed a high and sacred concept of marriage.  His compassion for the widow is reflected in parable and miracle.  Though weary, he stopped when mothers brought their children to him for blessing.  Women came to him for healing and in penitence.  Women sat at his feet to hear his words.  His disciples often wondered at the respect he had for women, both bad and good.  He was different form other rabbis.  When he went about preaching and proclaiming the glad tidings of the kingdom, not a few women ministered to him of their substance.  At the foot of the Cross, faithful women stood until the end, when all but one of his chosen twelve had forsaken him and fled; and they followed those who carried Jesus’ body to its burial, and went home to prepare spices and ointments for its anointing.

            That this loving service was agreeable to the mind of Christ, we may learn from his choosing the same faithful women to become the first witnesses of his glorious resurrection.

            That the Son of God had a definite plan for the continuing of his presence and ministry after the necessary withdrawal of his visible, physical presence from the earth, is shown by his institution of the sacraments, and the choosing and training of the twelve.  Before the end of this earthly ministry, the Lord ordained and commissioned them.  :As my Father hast sent me, even so send I you” (Jn 20,21).  “Go into all the world…” (Mk 16,15).  The developing details of this ministry of reconciliation were to be worked out under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  “These things,” said our Lord, “have I spoken unto you, being yet present with you.  But  the Comforter, the Holy Ghost whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things and bring all things to your remembrance” (Jn 14,25-26).




“When the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.  And suddenly…they were all filled with the Holy Ghost …” (Acts 2,1 ff).  The faithful women were in the company, and these women no less than men were partakers of the special gifts of the Spirit.  St. Luke cites this as the fulfillment of the ancient prophecy of Joel, (Joel 2,28-29), quoted by St. Peter: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy … upon the servants and handmaidens in those days will I pour out my Spirit” (Acts 2,17 f.).

            The Church’s ministry grew out of the Church’s need.  With the multiplying of the number of disciples, the twelve soon realized they alone could not manage all the details, particularly those attendant upon the daily ministrations of charity.  So that the apostles should give themselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word of God, they gave direction for the choosing of seven men, “full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom.”  The seven were set apart to attend to these practical matters, to “serve (diakonein) tables” (Acts 6,1-6).  The seven are nowhere called by the title deacon, but they were appointed to their duties with prayer and the laying on of hands by the apostles.  This marked the beginning of a differentiated ministry, and has always been taken by the Church as the embryonic beginning of the office of deacon.

            The use of the word deacon (and later deaconess) as a title came as a gradual crystallization of an everyday Greek word of common gender, which literally meant “servant.”  But this Greek word had a slightly different meaning from our English term.  There were other words in Greek that denoted service for pay, and the duty service of a slave.  But the noun and corresponding verb diakonein meant service freely and lovingly given and are used throughout the New Testament, in speaking of the service of St. Martha, of St. Peter’s mother-in-law, of the angels, and of the ministry of the women to Jesus.  Our Lord used it also when he said, “ I came not to be ministered unto (diakonethenai), but to minister (diakonesai)” (Mt 20,28).  “I am among you as he that serveth (diakonon)” (Lk 22,27).  Literally, “I am among you as a deacon.”

            The first place where we find the word used as a title is apparently in Romans 16,1-2.  St. Paul, writing to the Roman Christians in about the year 56 or 58 A.D., says:


I commend unto you Phoebe, our sister, which is a deacon (diakonon) of the Church1 which is in Cenchrea:  that ye receive her in the Lord, as becometh saints, and that ye assist her in whatsoever business she hath need of you:  for she hath been a succourer of many, and of myself also.


            At this early time, we cannot read into the use of the word the full meaning connoted in a later day.  But we can certainly gather from St. Paul’s words that Phoebe seems to have been doing a ministering service.  Cenchrea was a mere village some nine miles from Corinth and its southern port, from which St. Paul embarked on his second missionary journey.  The rough harbor town was probably quite a contrast to the intellectual, wealthy, and luxury-loving Corinth.  St. Paul had spent eighteen months in the city, and it is possible that Phoebe was one of his converts there, and when a mission had been planted in Cenchrea that she went there to serve.  St. Paul speaks of her as “a” deacon, rather the “the” deacon, so there may have been others.  Tradition makes her the bearer of this important letter to Rome.  Evidently she was a woman of means and generosity.  St. Paul’s words speak well of her character and bravery in setting out on an arduous and long journey; his request that the Romans assist her in whatsoever she has need, shows she must have had executive ability, perhaps going to Rome on a business mission.

            The next use of the title deacon is in the pastoral epistles.  Whether written by St. Paul to St. Timothy about the year 61 A.D. after his release from his first imprisonment, or whether written later by another person, “The pastor,” we find Church orders emerging into a little more definite form.  In I Timothy 3, 8-12, in the middle of a passage about deacons, the writer lists qualifications likewise for women.  The import of the passage has long been obscured by the erroneous translation of the word “women” (gunaikas) as “their wives.”  There is no pronoun in the Greek text.  Diakonos being a common gender noun, to make himself clear the writer inserted the word “women” when speaking especially about the women deacons.  The writer’s meaning can be easily seen when the text is arranged in parallel columns thus:


            Likewise must the deacons                Likewise must women

  be grave,                                                be grave,

                  not double-tongued,                           not slanderers,

                  not given to much wine                      sober,

  not greedy of filthy lucre,                    .   .   .   .   .

                  holding the mystery of                        full of faith in

     the faith in a                                       all things.

     pure conscience.


The men deacons dispensed the alms, a function which evidently the women deacons did not have at this early time, hence the caution to men deacons against greed.

            Was the office of deaconess of apostolic origin?  Assuredly, yes.  Bishop Lightfoot wrote:  “As I read my New Testament, the female diaconate is quite a definite an institution as the male diaconate.”2  Dean Howson asserts:  “It appears to me that if we take our stand simply on the ground of the New Testament, the argument for the recognition of the deaconess as a part of the Christian ministry is as strong as the argument for the episcopacy.”3  There have been some who disliked the idea that women ever had any part in the ministry of the Church and who tried to prove that the office of deaconess was of late development, while the office of deacon existed from the beginning in quite definite form.  Critical study of the New Testament age seems to show that all Church orders were rudimentary at the time.  At the time of St. Timothy, a bishop was more of an overseer than the monarchial bishop of later centuries.  The office of presbyter was rather vague as to duties, and the deacons were the “men-servants” and “women-servants” who took care of the charitable work of the Church.  The important thing is that in the apostolic age, when the great outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was still a dynamic experience, the Church made its beginning of a differentiated ministry and guided the initial developments.




The first reference to deaconesses outside the New testament occurs in a letter written about the year 112 A.D by Pliny, Roman Governor of Bithynia, to the Emperor Trajan, asking how to deal with the Christian sect.4  In trying to discover what the Christians were doing, he had put to the torture two handmaidens who were called ministers (deaconesses), “ancillae quae vocantur ministrae.”  Ministrae was the Latin translation of the Greek diakonoi.

            Clement of Alexandria (155-220 A.D.) was head of the Alexandrian catechetical school, which was a center of Christian theology in the second and third centuries.  He was a learned student of Scripture, and it is interesting to note that he interprets St. Paul’s rules (I Tim 3,11) as referring to the ministry of women (diakonon gunaikon). 5  Origen (185-254 A.D.), teacher and philosopher, a pupil and successor of Clement as head of the Alexandrian school for a while, whose study of the Scriptures entitles him to rank as the father of biblical criticism, comments on Romans 16,1-2, and asserts this shows that women were also established in the ministry (diakonia) of the Church.6

            While these two writers do not speak as if they knew of deaconesses existing in their time and locality, they were not unacquainted with the use of these Greek words as meaning a title to a specific ministry of women in the Church.

            The Apostolic Didascalia, a document dated in the second half of the third or beginning of the fourth century, was probably written originally in Greek and has been preserved in a Syriac translation.  It gives us a picture of Church order of these early times, and contains a startling metaphor that reveals that the writer had a very high conception of the diaconate of women,  It also shows why deaconesses were needed, and how they were used.  In chapter 17, we read:


Wherefore, O Bishop, thou shalt appoint unto thee laborers of righteousness, helpers with thee unto life.  Those that seem good to thee out of all the people thou shalt choose and appoint Deacons, a man for the doing of many things that are needed, and a woman for the ministration to the women.  For there are houses where thou canst not send the Deacon unto women because of the heathen; but thou shalt send the Deaconess.  For also in many other things the Office of a woman [that is, a Deaconess] is required.7


            The Apostolic Constitutions tell of Church practices perhaps a century or so later than the Syriac Didascalia, both before and after Nicaea.  The deaconess is mentioned after the deacon and before the subdeacon.  The imposition of hands by the bishop is spoken of as the accepted method of making deaconesses.  A prayer from the Constitution is embodied into some of the modern admission rites:


            Concerning Deaconesses…

O Bishop, thou shalt lay thy hands upon her, with the Presbytery and the Deacons and Deaconesses standing by; and thou shalt say:

“Eternal God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Creator of man and woman, that didst fill with the Spirit Mary (Miriam) and Deborah, and Anna and Hulda, that didst not disdain that thine only begotten Son should be born of a woman; thou that in the tabernacle of witness and in the temple didst appoint the women guardians of thy holy gates: Do thou look on this thy handmaid, which is appointed unto ministry [or “unto the Office of Deaconess”] (eis diakonian); and grant unto her the holy Spirit, and cleanse her from all pollution of the flesh and of the spirit, that she may worthily accomplish the work committed unto her, to thy glory and the praise of thy Christ, with whom to thee and the holy Spirit be glory and worship world without end.  Amen.8


From these early documents and others, including the Testament of Our Lord (fourth or fifth century), we learn of the functions performed by the deaconesses of the early Church:

1. The assisting at the administration of the baptism of women.  “It is required that those who go down into the water (of baptism) shall be anointed with the oil of anointing by a deaconess.”

2. Instructing newly baptized women.   “When she that is baptized cometh up from the water, the deaconess shall receive her, and shall teach her and instruct her how the seal of baptism may be unbroken in chastity and holiness.”

3. The taking of messages of the bishop to women, where he could not send the deacon.

4. Ministering to the sick and poor.

5. Ministering to the martyrs in prison.

6. Presiding over the women’s entrance into the church; examining the commendatory letters of strangers and assigning them places.

7. Oversight of the widows and orphans.

8. The taking of the Eucharist to women who were sick.9




Nicaea, 325 A.D. The clergy of the heretical Paulianist sect returning to the Catholic fold were required by the council to be rebaptized and reordained.  The same rule was to be observed concerning deaconesses, who were specially mentioned since some of them wearing the habit had not received the laying on of hands and therefore were to be considered laity (canon XIX).10

            Chalcedon, 451 A.D. (The fourth general council.)  The ordination of deaconesses is expressly called both cheirotoneisthai and cheirothesia – ordination by the imposition of hands (canon XV). 11

                        Trullo, 692 A.D. (Called “Quinisext” as being supplemental to the fourth and fifth councils, which were occupied wholly with the matters of faith.)  This council speaks of the ordination of deaconesses in two canons (XIV and XLVIII) using the word cheirotoneisthai.  While Pope Sergius did not approve six of the canons of this council, the canons on deaconesses were accepted.12





The Order developed in numbers and prestige in the Eastern Church, reaching its height in the fourth, fifth , and sixth centuries.  “All the leading Greek Fathers and Church writers of the age – St. Basil (326-379 A.D.), St. Gregory of Nyssa (died 396 A.D.), Epiphanius (died 403 A.D.), Chrysostom (344-407 A.D.), Theodoret (393-457 A.D.), Sozomen (5th century) refer to it, and notices of individual deaconesses become frequent in Church annals, whilst everywhere the female diaconate is spoken of as an honorable office, and one filled by persons of rank, talent, and fortune.”13

            St. John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople, spoke out so eloquently against the sins of the emperor and the moral laxity of clergy and laity alike that he was forced to flee into exile.  There were forty deaconesses on the staff of the cathedral of St. Sophia, and they helped the bishop to escape.  The burning of the cathedral the next day was laid to their charge and they were cruelly treated.  The exiled bishop wrote letters to them, comforting them, and congratulating them on their courage and patience.  His many personal letters to these deaconesses give interesting glimpses of their lives and position.14

            The codes and laws of the Emperor Justinian in the middle of the sixth century give considerable information as to the status of the deaconess.15  The beautiful building of St. Sophia (now a mosque) was built by Justinian, and the number of clergy to be attached was fixed by law: one hundred deacons, and forty deaconesses at the cathedral; a small parish was allotted six deaconesses.

            Deaconesses were considered members of the clergy in both civil and ecclesiastical law.  They were ordained with the imposition of hands by the bishops, the same words being used to describe the rite whether administered to the man or woman deacon.  In the parallel services for the ordination of deacon and deaconess found in the Apostolic Constitutions, though the two ordination prayers vary, the same word is used regarding the office to which both are admitted, and prayer is made that the Holy Spirit be granted to each:


                        Deacon.                                             Deaconess.

    Almighty God…make                      Eternal God…look

thy face to shine upon this                on this thy handmaid, which

                                thy servant which is appointed         is appointed unto the office

                                unto the office of deacon [eis            of deaconess [eis diakonian],

                                diakonian], and fill him with              and grant unto her the holy

                                the Spirit, and with power…               Spirit…16


            In the Constantinopolitan Rite of the service books of the Eastern Church, the prayer that accompanies the laying on of hands in the ordination of a deaconess runs thus:


O Lord God, who does not reject women who offer themselves in accordance with the divine will to minister in thy holy places, but admittest them into the rank of ministers [leitourgoi]. Give the grace of thy holy Spirit even to this thy handmaid, who desireth to offer herself to thee, and to fulfill the grace of the ministry as thou didst give the grace of thy ministry unto Phoebe…


            In this service in the Greek euchology, the bishop “puts the diaconal stole (orarium) on her neck, under the wimple (maphorium), bringing the two ends forward…After she has partaken of the holy Body and Blood, the archbishop gives her the holy chalice, which she receives and puts back on the holy table.”17

            An early service in the Latin Church gives directions to the bishop for putting on the stole as he blesses the deaconess in the mass for the consecration of a deaconess.18  In the pontifical of Egbert, archbishop of York (733-766 A.D.), there is an “Episcopal Benediction at the Ordination of a Deaconess.”19

            It is a justifiable conclusion that the diaconate these services were intended to confer was as real a diaconate as that conferred upon men.  “That the deaconess never did all the work of a deacon does not show that her diaconate was not as real.  There were obvious restrictions on account of her sex.  In the period under consideration, nothing else would have been conceivable.  But it was restriction of function due to sex and circumstance, not a defect or absence of order.  A parallel restriction is equally obvious in the case of a deacon, who would not normally anoint a woman at Baptism – that is, if a deaconess could be had.”20

                        The deaconess received the Eucharist directly after the clergy, and was addressed by such terms as “most reverend” and “the venerable.”  The deaconess was considered of higher rank than the subdeacon.  The minor orders were not of apostolic origin but developed later.  They did not employ the laying on of hands at first, and hence were called acheirotonetos uperesia or insacrati minisri.21  In later years, as the office of deacon grew in importance, and together with it the office of subdeacon, the laying on of hands was administered to the subdeacon.  As the office of deaconess diminished in numbers and functions, it became ranked below that of subdeacon.





In the West, deaconesses were not as numerous, nor do we find early evidence that this office was much used.  The great Latin Fathers Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine are silent on the subject, but we know that the existence of the office was not unknown in Rome because Rome was represented in the great ecumenical councils.  The council of Nicaea recognized the order as a matter of course.22

            Conditions of oriental society created a need for deaconesses and their ministry that did not obtain in the West.  Accordingly, we find younger widows – not pensioners of the Church – doing some active work in the Western Church; but these were not deaconesses and the distinction is quite clear.

            The first mention of deaconesses in the West occurs in 394 A.D., when a local synod (Nimes) forbade further ordination of them;23 possibly the order had recently been introduces into Gaul from the East.  There followed other prohibition by other local synods (Orange, 441, Epâon, 517), and severe penalties against the marriage of a deaconess by the synod of Orleans in 533.  We may judge that local prohibitions had little effect on an institution sanctioned by the general Church, for we have the record of some deaconesses in the West.  For example, in 530 the influential and saintly bishop of Rheims, St. Remigius, left a bequest to “my blessed daughter Hilaria, the deaconess.”24 and in 539 in Pavia, “Theodora, the deaconess, of blessed memory” was buried.25

            In 544 we have the interesting story of the ordination of the deaconess St. Rhadegund.  She was a Thuringian princess who was captured as a child by Clothaire I, a Frankish king, and later forced into marriage with him, becoming one of his seven recognized wives.  He was a violent and wicked man.  Rhadegund, who has learned the Christian faith, fled from court after the King’s treacherous murder of her brother and sought refuge at Noyon where she entreated the bishop, St. Medard, to ordain her a deaconess.  The demand was entirely irregular, and the bishop at first refused on the ground that her married state disqualified her for the diaconate.  With the pursuing king and his warriors at the door of the church, she hurried to the sacristy, and laying aside her rich clothing and jeweled girdle, donned a religious habit she found hanging there, returned to the altar and said to the bishop: “If thou shalt refuse to consecrate me, and shall fear men rather than God, let the soul of the sheep be required of the shepherd at thy hand!”  Smitten by this solemn adjuration, he laid his hands upon her and consecrated her a deaconess (manu superposita consecravit eam diaconam).

            Through the mediation of another bishop, Germanus, the king was induced to consent to a separation, and the deaconess Rhadegund retired to Poitiers, where she founded a convent.  She herself was not the abbess, but lived as a simple nun, renowned for her saintliness, and consulted by rulers of state.  One of her friends was the poet, Bishop Fortunatus, who is known to us by some very familiar hymns he wrote: “The royal banners forward go,” “Hail, Festal Day,” “Welcome, happy morning,” and others.  Their’s was a beautiful friendship, and many little gifts of fruit and flowers were sent from the convent to the bishop.  When deaconess Rhadegund died in 587, she was buried with great honor by Gregory, bishop of Tours.  Bishop Fortunatus wrote an account of her life.26

                        Deaconesses were in Rome in the eighth century, if not before.  We find a votive tablet erected to the deaconess Anna by her twin brother Dometius, deacon and treasurer of the Holy See.  When Pope Leo III and Charlemagne entered Rome in triumph in 799, they were met by “the Roman populace, including nuns, deaconesses, and noble matrons.”27  In the eleventh century we find charters of four popes issued to bishops in Italy, which state the right of the bishops “to make priests, deacons, deaconesses, and subdeacons.”28




After the sixth century the order began to decline, both in numbers and in prestige. It was never abolished, however; it simply ceased to function.  The reasons for this were several.

            The conditions of society had changed.  As the Church moved westward, men were less restricted in their ministration to women.  The new freedom accorded women in the early days of Christianity was lost.  The decline and breakup of the Roman Empire made it unsafe for women to live and work alone, and hence the protection of the cloister became necessary for them to live a consecrated life.

            The rise of the monastic orders confused and absorbed many of the distinctive characteristics of the order of deaconess.  Deaconess communities adopted monastic ideas, and instead of being the direct servant of the bishop, the deaconess pledged obedience first of all to the superior of the order.  Bishops often named a deaconess as abbess in charge of a community of lay women or “choir of virgins,” because the deaconess by virtue of her office was under episcopal control, and religious orders were often a little too independent of that control.  All abbesses were not deaconesses, but there is confusion of terms.

            There was a gradual change from the conception of the early diaconate.  The office of deacon began to grow in importance, and to lose its early characteristic as an office dedicated to life-long service.  Instead it became a stepping-stone to a higher office, a sort of sub-priesthood, as it really is in the Church today.  Many duties performed by deacon and deaconess in the early days were delegated to the subdeacon and the lesser orders.  The Church failed to adapt the office of deaconess to new tasks as former duties were laid aside.  Baptism of adults became rare; immersion was abandoned as a method of baptism; martyrs were no longer imprisoned; and men and women no longer sat in separate places in the Church.

            During the Middle Ages, the mind of the Church largely centered on individual salvation, ascetic practices, and theological problems.  Ministering to the poor and desolate took a relatively minor place; the charitable work that was done was preformed almost exclusively by the monastic communities.




Several liturgical vestiges of the office of deaconess nevertheless survived.  In the pontifical of Egbert, archbishop of York (732-766), there is an episcopal benediction of a deacon or a deaconess, and also the benediction at the ordination of a deaconess.29  In the Leofric missal of the bishop of Exeter (1050-1072), is a service for the making of a deaconess.  This is contained in an appendix to the pontifical of Bainbridge, 1508.30  In the Syrian Church, the prayer for the consecration of a bishop contains this petition, “that through the power of the gift [of the Holy Ghost] he may make priests, deacons, subdeacons and deaconesses for the ministry of thy holy Church.”31

            In the Roman Catholic Church there is a direct survival, though it represents the medieval rather than primitive type of deaconess.  In the Carthusian order, which came into existence in the twelfth century, and which has three houses of nuns in France, Italy, and Belgium and numbers about 140 nuns, the diocesan bishop has continued to “consecrate into the place of deaconess” some of the older professed nuns.  They are vested with stole and maniple which is worn on the right arm, and the bishop uses “the same words that he says at the ordination of a deacon or subdeacon.”32  A nun thus consecrated sings the epistle at conventual high mass, though without leaving her place in the choir.  If no priest be present at matins, a consecrated nun assumes the stole and reads the Gospel.

            Among the Benedictines and Cistercians the practice of “consecrating” nuns continued until the eighteenth century.  Among some of the other orders three different veils were bestowed: the veil of profession given as early as at twelve years of age, the veil of consecration given as early as twenty-five, and the veil of ordination given at forty.  This last veil seems to be a survival of the ordination of a deaconess, since forty years was the usual requirement of the canons of the early Church for ordination to that office.33




Several factors led up to and influenced the restoration to usefulness of this ancient Church office.  In 1625, St. Vincent de Paul aroused interest in the poor and sick, and founded a new type of religious order.  His Sisters of Charity had at the beginning an uncloistered freedom and an ideal of service similar to that of the primitive diaconate.  He told his sisters: “Your convent must be the houses of the sick, your cell the chamber of suffering, your chapel the parish church, your cloister the streets of the city.”34  Although, this order later conformed more to the usual monastic pattern, it did have its influence in bringing to the forefront the ideal of service.

            In 1734, the non-juring bishops of Scotland were led by their study of Christian antiquities to desire the revival of the office of deaconess.  A service for the making of deaconesses was compiled which was very complete and beautiful, in full accord with ancient tradition, and providing for the laying on of hands.35  There is no evidence, however, that this service was ever used.

            A hundred years passed.  The early nineteenth century saw an awakened interest in the condition of the poor, first on the part of many gifted women and then on the part of the Church itself.  The distressing social conditions created by industrial revolution underscored the profound need for women’s pastoral care.

            In 1833, a Lutheran pastor, the Reverend Theodore Fliedner, undertook to revive the ministry of deaconess for the care of the unfortunate.  An association of women was formed at Kaiserwerth, Germany, that resembled St. Vincent de Paul’s sisterhood.  The members received “consecration” at the hands of pastors, according to the Lutheran idea of orders.  This was not considered ordination.  This noble work grew to large proportions, and has had a tremendous influence upon women’s work, and upon the care of the sick and old, the young and destitute.  Florence Nightingale received inspiration and training at Kaiserwerth, and the uniform and cap of the present-day nurse survive as reminders of the debt owed to the Lutheran deaconesses.


The successful work at Kaiserwerth also stimulated thought in England and America.  There were several attempts in these countries to organize parochial and diocesan deaconess-sisterhoods, small communities after the Lutheran pattern.36  Conceptions of the terms “deaconess” and “sister” were hazy; these devoted women were neither “religious” sisters nor were they true deaconesses in the technical meaning of the term.  They were admitted to their communities by giving the right hand as pledge, whereas the sine qua non of the historic office of deaconess is the imposition of episcopal hands.  But out of some of these experiments emerged true monastic communities, and the real restoration of the office of deaconess.

            Under the wise leadership and careful study of antiquities by such men as Dean Howson, Bishop Lightfoot, Bishop Thorold, Canon Body, and others, when the office of deaconess was finally restored in the Church of England, it was done in accordance with primitive Catholic tradition, which differed quite essentially form the Lutheran pattern.  In 1862, Bishop Tait of London admitted Elizabeth Ferard to the office of deaconess was the imposition of hands.  She thus became the first woman to hold this historic office in England after the lapse of several centuries.

            One of the first person in America to have a true and clear concept of the office was Bishop Cobbs, the first Episcopal Bishop of Alabama.  He planned a cathedral to be built at Montgomery with a group on institutions around it, including a house for deacons who were to do missionary work and assist in pastoral ministrations, and a house for deaconesses who were to teach and take care of the sick and poor.  The plan reminds us of St. John Chrysostom’s cathedral.  “Such a plan,” said Bishop Cobbs, “would enable a bishop to be, not simply the chairman of convention, but the heart, the motive power, and the controlling agent of his diocese – a bishop in the Gospel sense of the word.”37  The plan never materialized, probably because of the imminence of the Civil War.

            Bishop Cobbs was succeeded by his friend, Bishop Richard Hooker Wilmer, who, late in December, 1864, “instituted” as deaconesses – without the imposition of hands – three godly women who offered themselves for whatever work the bishop might assign them.  The war had left many orphans, so the little community was put to work at once to take care of them.  The group organized as a little sisterhood or community after the Kaiserwerth pattern, with a constitution and rules approved by the bishop.  Although Bishop Wilmer did not at first use the laying on of hands in his service of “institution,” he did so as early as 1885.38  Two deaconesses were set apart that year: Deaconess Mary W. Johnson on Epiphany 1885 and Deaconess Mary Caroline Friggell on St. Peter’s Day.  Bishop Henry Codman Potter of New York set apart Julia Forneret as deaconess in 1887 with the imposition of hands.

            Both Bishop Wilmer and Bishop Potter acted by their inherent rights as bishops of the historic Church.39  In 1889, General Convention passed a canon authorizing the setting apart of deaconesses in the Episcopal Church.40 After the passage of the canon, so anxious was Bishop Wilmer to have everything valid and canonical, that he called his little band of seven deaconesses together on the Feast of the Purification, 1893.  Some of these had not received the laying on of hands; accordingly, in St. John’s Church, Mobile, “in the face of a large congregation,” he solemnly bestowed on each the imposition of hands.41

The Bishops of London, Alabama, and New York, in restoring the office before the specific canon had passed, or authorization made, did nothing strange or amiss, for the ancient charters to bishops “concede and confirm the right to ordain bishops, priests, deacons, deaconesses, and subdeacons.”  In restoring the office, the bishops have been extremely careful that the “Setting Apart Service” should have these essential parts: 1. Prayer; 2. The Laying on of Hands; 3. The Giving of Authority to a specific Office: “Take thou authority to execute the Office of Deaconess in the Church of God…” or “I admit thee to the Office of Deaconess in the …”  Two other things are added now: the giving of the New Testament and the giving of the Deaconess Cross (added since the adoption of a uniform Cross in England and in America.)





After the Episcopal Church had officially recognized the revival of the ancient office with the passage of the deaconess canon in 1889, there was considerable interest and enthusiasm.  Schools for training were started in various parts of the country – at San Francisco, New Orleans, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, New York, Berkeley, and Chicago.  Several hundred women were trained and “set apart” into the office of deaconess, and quietly and humbly served in various capacities to the glory of God.  Some were teachers, some nurses, some headed institutions for the care of children or the aged, some served in church settlement houses and in parochial work.  In many lands, in many places, in the city, in the lonely country, with the rich, the poor, the delinquent, the troubled, deaconesses have labored and are laboring for Christ and his Church.

            The Episcopal training schools that were started so ambitiously were of local or diocesan character and financial difficulties closed many of them within a relatively short time, but the schools in Philadelphia, New York, and Berkeley continued for many years.  It was the plan of all these schools to train not only the deaconess candidates, but also other women who were preparing for missionary work or wished to serve as graduate trained workers.  The candidates were in the majority at first, but as the years went on, the proportion changed, and the student body consisted mostly of those in general training.  The schools in Berkeley and Philadelphia became general Church training schools, and lay women were placed in charge. The Philadelphia school united with Windham House, which has been created by the Woman’s Auxiliary as a national graduate training center.  These schools have had fine leadership and have done excellent work.  But while it was true that a deaconess candidate could obtain most of the academic work that would prepare her to take her canonical examinations for the office of deaconess, this is but one side of the necessary preparation.

            The candidate with a vocation to an office in the Church needs more that professional training.  The work of a deaconess is arduous and often lonely; she needs a deep spiritual reservoir to draw from in the arid times.  She is a spiritual shepherdess, particularly to the women and children of Christ’s flock, the fortunate and the unfortunate needy souls.  It is no easy task to go out in the name of the Church, expected to carry responsibility, yet to be willing to follow; to be strong physically, mentally, and spiritually, but never to fail in tenderness, sympathy, or helpfulness toward the weak, the simple, and the foolish.  During the training period, her vocation must be nourished and developed and special training given in the ministration of the office.  The Church would not attempt to prepare men to be deacons and priests in theological seminaries run entirely by laymen.  Neither could the Church prepare deaconess candidates in schools run entirely by lay women, no matter how competent and able, nor how high the school’s academic standing. The appreciation of the value of the ordination gift of grace is best transmitted by those who have received it.

            The New York Training School for Deaconesses was the last of the diocesan schools where the training of candidates had been the primary purpose.  Forced to close for financial reasons, it was reopened and run for several years by the deaconesses who raised enough money to augment endowment funds.  Then came and unfortunate setback.  By an old agreement with the diocese of New York, the building housing the school, built on the cathedral grounds, was needed for diocesan work, and had to be surrendered for this.  Income from the endowment funds of the closed school is now used to assist the order with certain salaries and scholarship aid.

            For a few years there was no place where a deaconess candidate could be trained with and by deaconesses.  There were very few candidates and these were prepared privately under episcopal supervision or sent for preparation to a deaconess school in England.

            The gravity of this situation was realized by many leaders in the Episcopal Church as well as by the deaconesses themselves.  There was an urgent need that something be done.  A school or college had to be established for the specialized training of candidates by and with deaconesses, or the order would soon cease to exist on this side of the Atlantic.  This training center should be on a national foundation, not local or diocesan.

            Early in 1953, Bishop Conkling of Chicago called a meeting of those who had comprised the last Advisory Commission on the Work of Deaconesses (1949-1952) to discuss the problem and formulate some plans.  The result was the incorporation in Illinois of the Central House for Deaconesses.  The bishops of Chicago, New York, and Alabama, the chancellor of Chicago, two priests, two deaconesses, and a lay woman were the incorporators, and served as the first board of trustees.

            The first problem was to find a suitable location and building. Geographically central, Evanston, Illinois, was considered the best location, especially because of the educational facilities available.  This was not immediately possible, and the trustees felt action was necessary, so they gladly accepted the offer of the bishop of Chicago to use a building at the Bishop McLaren Conference Center at Sycamore, Illinois.  The building was rehabilitated and formally opened with the blessing of the house on October 29, 1953.

            For the next five years, annual retreats and conferences were held, and candidates were trained or completed their preparation.  But Sycamore was a difficult location geographically.  When a small house was found in Evanston, it was purchased in 1958.  This led to the acquiring of a larger house in 1960 in the desired location near university and seminary.  The house belongs to the whole Episcopal Church.  Six dioceses are represented on its board of trustees, and some of its maintenance comes from the budget of the national Church program.  Though located within the diocese of Chicago, and gratefully appreciative for guidance and fostering care of this diocese, constant attention is called to the fact that the Central House for Deaconesses is a national, and a not a diocesan project.

            The Central House serves as headquarters for the deaconesses of the Church, and has proved of great value in this capacity, giving inspiration and promoting fellowship among the widely separated members of the order.  Its training program has been flexible enough to adapt to changing times.  With the opening of the seminaries to women students, candidates can best take the canonically required subjects at a seminary, and if qualified, work for an M.A. degree in Christian education, or for a B.D. degree.  As an economy of time and strength, it has been found best for the candidates to live at the seminary, though in close touch with the Central House at all times.  In Evanston, a mutually acceptable program has been worked out with Seabury-Western, and also with other seminaries.  However, candidates are being prepared for something more than a profession, namely, a life-long vocation of ministry.  The Central House still has an important part to play in developing that vocation and instructing in the history and ministration of the office.  Therefore, an initial period of indoctrination is given candidates preliminary to seminary work, and for all candidates, wherever their preparation may have been, a period of final preparation before being ordained.





After the official restoration of the order of deaconesses, there was considerable confusion of thought.  A century ago, there was great prejudice against women in any type of professional work, and this had its impact in ecclesiastical thinking.  Historical data was not easy of access.

            To meet this situation, the archbishop of Canterbury, in 1917, appointed a committee of clerical and lay scholars to delve into historical material regarding the ministry of women in the Church in earlier times, and that of deaconesses in particular.  Their report42 was thoroughly thrashed out in the Lambeth Conference of 1920.  The resolutions adopted were quite definite.  They were simplified and adopted by the 1930 Lambeth Conference and reaffirmed again in 1948, in the following terms:


114. The Conference reaffirms Resolution 67 of the Conference of 1930 that “the Order of Deaconess is for women the one and only Order of Ministry which we can recommend our branch of the Catholic Church to recognize and use.”  It also approves the resolution adopted 1939-1941 in both Houses of the Convocations of Canterbury and York “that the Order of Deaconesses is the one existing ordained ministry in the Anglican Communion to which women are admitted by episcopal imposition of hands…

116. The Conference desires to draw attention again to the wide and important range of work which may be entrusted to deaconesses by the constituted authorities of any province of the Anglican Communion; and recommends that in all parts of the Anglican Communion the work of deaconesses should be encouraged and their status and function defined.43

Subsequently, the Convocations of Canterbury and York made resolutions, later reaffirming them again, stating:

Thus it becomes clear that while for men there is the threefold Holy Order of Bishops, Priests and Deacons, for women there is the Order of Deaconesses.  This fact has its origins in history, for it is clear that within the Ministry of the Early Church, Deaconesses played an important part.  This re-affirmation by the Convocations was needed to put to an end the misunderstandings which have existed for some time past regarding the nature and character of the Order….At her ordination as a Deaconess, a woman receives by episcopal ordination a distinctive and permanent status in the Church and is dedicated to a life-long service and ministry.


            In America, the 1919 General Convention appointed a “Commission on Adapting the Office of Deaconess to the Present Tasks of the Church.”  This Commission did a great deal of study of the Lambeth research and resolutions and as a result, the canon, “Of Deaconesses,” was revised in 1922.  It placed the order of deaconesses alongside of the other orders of ministry so regulated.  As of General Convention of 1964, canon 50, “Of Deaconesses,” reads: “Sec. 1. A woman of devout character and proved fitness, may be ordered Deaconess by any Bishop of this Church, subject to the provisions of this Canon.44  The canon goes on to regulate the qualifications, candidacy, required subjects of study, age of admission, canonical examinations to be passed, testimonials of fitness of character, physical and mental health.  No one can be recognized as a deaconess until the admission service is preformed by the bishop.   The deaconess must always be canonically attached to a diocese and under the direction of its bishop to whom an annual report must be made.  Transfer to another diocese is by letters dimissory.  The canon outlines the chief function which may be entrusted to a deaconess.  It also provides trial, for cause, in special ecclesiastical court as for other clergy.

            To sum up:The resolutions of Lambeth, Canterbury and York, and the American canon make clear that the office of deaconess is a recognized part of the ordained ministry of the Church, but is now an order sui generis, not yet entirely returned to its ancient position.




The ministerial duties of the office were outlined in very general terms in the early Episcopal Church’s canon, yet beautifully summarized and expressed: “The duty of a Deaconess is: to teach the unlearned, to instruct youth, to care for the sick, to comfort the afflicted, to supply the wants of the poor and needy and to labor in all ways for the extension of the Church of Christ.”45 The present Canon is more specific:


Sec. 2      (a)  The duty of a Deaconess is to assist in the work of the Parish, Mission, or institution to which she may be appointed, under the direction of the Rector or Priest in charge; or if there be none such, to perform such functions as may be directly entrusted to her by the Bishop.

(b)     The following are the chief functions which may be entrusted to a Deaconess:

(1)     The Care of the sick, afflicted, and the poor;

(2)     To give instruction in the Christian faith;

(3)     Under the Rector or Priest in charge, to prepare candidates for Baptism and Confirmation.

(4)     To assist at the administration of Holy Baptism and in the absence of the Priest or Deacon to baptize infants;

(5)     Under the Rector or Priest in charge to organize, superintend and carry out the Church’s work among women and children;

(6)     With the approval of the Bishop and the incumbent, to read Morning and Evening Prayer (except such portions as are reserved for the Priest) and the Litany in Church or Chapel in the absence of the Minister; and when licensed by the Bishop to give instruction or deliver addresses at such services;

(7)     To organize and carry on social work; and in colleges and schools to have a responsible part in the education of women and children and to promote the welfare of women students.46




Is the office of deaconess outmoded?  Should it be allowed to fade away quietly as a worthy “has been” of a past era? Or does the restored office present a challenge to the Church?

            The office of deaconess is great potential of help and vigor in the extension of the Church of Christ.  In this age, when new fields are opening up to women, and their abilities are winning laurels in professional and scientific work, it is inconceivable that the Church would allow the secular world to absorb women’s abilities.  The office of deaconess is the modern answer to modern needs, yet set solidly within the framework of the historic apostolic ministry.  Bishop Lightfoot wrote: “if the testimony borne in these two passages (Rom 16,1-2 and I Tim 3,11) to a ministry of women of Apostolic times had not been thus blotted out of our English Bibles, attention would probably have been directed to it at an earlier date, and our English Church would not have been remained so long maimed in one of her hands.”47

            The office of deaconess presents a challenge to be met by the best talents and abilities a woman may possess.  It is not an easy life.  It requires humility, sacrifice, and complete dedication.  This is where the gift of grace in ordination helps.  The gift is real and abiding.  Though the going may be difficult at times, though the way be weary and tiring, there is the deep, inward transcendent joy in the heart, which only those can know who hear the call of the Lord, and rise up to follow him into his harvest field!