The contemporary history of this Deaconess Community can be located in four places: Kaiserswerth in Germany, Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, Baltimore in Maryland and Omaha in Nebraska.
In 1836, in Germany Pastor Theodor Fliedner and his wife Friedericke Műnster, using the story of New Testament Phoebe (Romans 16:1), the example of Mennonite deaconesses in Holland, the work of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul and the work of Wichern and his brotherhoods of deacons, called women to serve as deaconesses in a small pastoral charge in Kaiserswerth. They were part of a movement called the Inner Mission, which aimed at re-activating the ancient role of men and women to serve the lost, the crushed, and the poor. By 1884 there were 56 deaconess communities in Germany, France, Switzerland, and Scandinavia with a total of 5,653 deaconesses. They ministered with vagrants, epileptics, those in prison (and those recently released from prison), the sick, orphans, and anyone who had need. (Florence Nightingale experienced nursing in Kaiserswerth with the deaconesses.)
Throughout the latter half of the 19th century, pastors and deaconesses came to America from Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and various parts of Germany. They began hospitals and other institutions of mercy, and motherhouses in which to train deaconesses for service. In 1894 the close ties between these groups became official with the organization of the Lutheran Deaconess Conference in North America, the first inter-Lutheran agency in the land. It has been said that in the origins of every Lutheran Social Service agency in the USA one may find the name of a deaconess. Rev. W.A. Passavant opened the very first Lutheran Deaconess hospital (in fact, the first Protestant hospital in America) in Pittsburgh. In 1852, in The Missionary (his periodical) he wrote: “We have seven theological seminaries, four classic schools, five colleges for the education of our young men, and for our women two seminaries on paper. That shows what little importance is attached to the education of women. Our attitude so far in this question is neither Scriptural nor just to the female sex or the Church of Christ itself”. Passavant’s words are certainly a precursor and foundational for the attitude and work of this Deaconess Community over the years.
Sometime before the summer of 1884, John Lankenau’s friend and fellow hospital board member, the German Consul in Philadelphia, Charles H. Meyer, traveled to Germany to inquire about the availability of deaconesses from Kaiserwerth motherhouse and other motherhouses to staff the German Hospital – no deaconesses were available. Consul Meyer heard about the deaconesses at Iserlohn, and Lankenau later wrote to their directing sister and convinced them to come to America to take over the German Hospital, of which he was president. He finally found seven deaconesses from a small sisterhood in Iserlohn who agreed to come. These seven women literally cleaned up the Hospital, and with Lankenau’s financial help, entered into parish work, started a school for girls, a kindergarten, and a convalescent home for the aging, as well as establishing a Motherhouse for Deaconesses – all within a decade of their arrival in Philadelphia. The Motherhouse was eventually moved to Gladwyne (outskirts of Philadelphia) in 1953, a building donated by the Pew family of Philadelphia.
In 1889, just 5 years after the arrival of the Philadelphia sisters, the General Synod of the Lutheran Church (USA) created a Board of Deaconess Work, designating deaconesses as persons holding an “office of the church”. They opened a Motherhouse in Baltimore in 1895; the School was opened in 1910. They entered the nursing field, but not in hospitals. They were sent into the homes of the sick – as their German sisters still do. They went to parishes to complement the pastor’s work, and entered the ‘foreign mission field’. This action by a Lutheran Church in instituting a Deaconess Community was a first for Lutheranism worldwide. The School was for all women church workers, offering courses for parish workers, church educators, church secretaries, and pastors’ wives, as well as deaconesses and missionaries. It continued operating until 1965, by which time deaconess candidates were attending seminaries across the country.
Pastor E.A. Fogelstrom created Immanuel Hospital and Deaconess Motherhouse in Omaha in 1890, a brief six years after the early beginnings in Philadelphia. He had sent women to Philadelphia and Sweden for training as deaconesses. Immanuel Hospital was opened in 1890, as was the Deaconess Home, opposite the hospital. Women from this House served in the Immanuel Orphan Asylum, Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul, MN , and others in parishes. In 1904 the Augustana Lutheran Synod assumed direct control of Immanuel Deaconess Institute.
As early as 1947, the Philadelphia and Baltimore Houses were in close consultation with one another. Church merger and the birth of the Lutheran Church in America in 1962 provided good timing for the unification of these two deaconess communities – accomplished January 1, 1963. They sold the building they owned in Baltimore and moved to Gladwyne. On January 1, 1966, the deaconesses from Omaha joined the Deaconess Community of the Lutheran Church in America. The Deaconess Community of the LCA entered the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America as an intact community. It continues to function under policies and relationships established by the Vocation and Education Unit, ELCA.
In 1996, the Community decided to sell its home in Pennsylvania, for the sake of its mission and ministry. The Gladwyne house had become a facility for retired sisters and for people from every walk of life to use as a retreat center. As it became older, it became more of a liability to operate. Its style was that of a mansion, not an image of Word and Service, some would say. Many deaconesses were planning to retire with family, or in a geographic area other than Gladwyne. The house was sold in 2002; offices are presently rented from the Lutheran Center in Chicago.
Visit the ELCA Archives for a complete history of the Lutheran Deaconess movement. The exhibit includes photos and the history of 10 deaconess communities.