Four Deaconesses

from Emanuel Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota

sofia_hillbergDuring the last few years, one of the projects at the ELCA Archives in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, has been to process, catalog, and make available information about the Deaconess Community of the ELCA and its predecessor bodies. There are also records of other deaconess groups affiliated with churches that eventually merged into the ELCA. Some of these deaconess communities died out as no new members were admitted and older members died. In a few cases, a small number of retired sisters are still living, but their communities are near extinction. The earliest deaconess community to disband was Bethesda Deaconess Training School in St. Paul, Minnesota. It closed in 1930 and the sisters there transferred to Immanuel Deaconess Institute in Omaha, Nebraska, one of the predecessor bodies of the Deaconess Community of the ELCA.

Today the Deaconess Community of the ELCA is expanding, with many of the new candidates coming from Minnesota. As we approach our 125th anniversary in 2009, we are honoring our history by telling the story of deaconesses from the past whose records are found in the archives. We thought you would be interested in the story of four deaconesses who came from the same church, Emanuel Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, in the early twentieth century.

josephine_obyIt was unusual for so many deaconesses to come from the same church, especially when they entered within a period of seven years. It is also noteworthy that all four remained deaconesses all their life. In those days, deaconesses could not be married, and many left to do so or for other reasons. The work of these four deaconesses was due to their own dedication to God, but it seems to have been influenced also by Emanuel’s pastor at that time, the Rev. O.ASister Sofia Hillberg. Nelson. He was highly interested in works of mercy and was one of the founders of the China Missionary Society. His influence can be seen on the four young deaconesses, all of whom were active in works of mercy, and one of whom became a missionary to China. All of the women trained at Bethesda Deaconess Training School in St. Paul and later transferred to Immanuel in Omaha when Bethesda closed. These are their stories.

Sister Sofia Hillberg was born in Marback, Aneby, Sweden on April 9 1874. She immigrated to the United States in 1901, coming first to Chicago, but soon moving to Minneapolis. She entered the Bethesda Deaconess Training School in St. Paul, Minnesota, on October 6, 1904, and was invested on January 6, 1905. She graduated from the school of nursing at Bethesda and was consecrated on the same day, May 9, 1907. Later, she became a registered nurse in 1923. She served in St. Paul as a floor supervisor and later as housekeeper at Bethesda Hospital and as matron at the Young Women’s Home, and in Minneapolis as matron at the Old People’s Home of the Augustana MissionSister Josephine Oby Colony until 1935, when she moved to the Immanuel Deaconess Home in Omaha. She served there in the Home for the Aged and in the communion wafer and paramentic departments. In 1939, she went to California to care for relatives who were ill. She died in Turlock, California on March 17, 1948.

elvira_perssonSister Josephine Oby was a native of Minneapolis, born there on May 7, 1898. She entered Bethesda Training School at the same time as Sister Sofia, and the two were invested and consecrated at the same time. Sister Josephine was supervisor of Bethesda Hospital for several years, as well as holding other positions there. She also was a nurse and matron at the Bethesda Home for the Aged, Chisago City, Minnesota, worked in the Bethesda Deaconess Home, and at Augustana Mission Colony. She retired to the Immanuel Deaconess Home in 1945. Three years later, the Immanuel deaconesses thought it fitting to send her to Sister Sofia’s funeral in California, in respect for the long friendship and association of the two deaconesses. Sister Josephine died on November 24, 1959, and memorial services wSister Elvira Persson ere held in both Omaha and Minneapolis, where she was buried beside her mother.

Sister Elvira Persson was born on June 21, 1888 in Trelleborg, Sweden. While still in Sweden, she became convinced she would be a missionary in China. However, she came to America in 1907 to marry a young man she had met, but after three months decided she could not marry him because he drank alcohol. Although she said he was a “moderate drinker,” she had “a horror of any drinking.” She went to Minneapolis to care for a cousin who attended Emanuel Church, and although Elvira was not well-known there, the church sponsored her request to enter Bethesda Training School. This happened on February 25, 1909 and she was invested on June 2 of that year. She completed her schooling in 1912, served as supervisor and head nurse at Bethesda Hospital, and was consecrated on May 15, 1914. She went to China as a midwife-nurse, serving in Loyang 1914-1927, 1932-1938, and 1946-1948. She also did evangelism and worked in the dispensary. She was dedicated to her mission work and said, “I don’t think I ever had a definite call to the diaconate. I think God used the diaconate to prepare me for China.” Sister Emerentia PersonDuring her periods of leave, she served at the Frontier Nursing Service in Kentucky and at the Old People’s Home in Chisago City, attended a chaplain’s school for midwives in London, England, took a medical laboratory course in Minneapolis, and did some private nursing. After retiring, she thought of leaving the diaconate, but did not. She retired to Immanuel in 1948 and acted as librarian at Immanuel’s School of Nursing. She died February 24, 1966.

emerentia_personThe fourth deaconess, Sister Emerentia Person, was born on Jun 28, 1885 in Aryd, Sweden. She came to America in 1907 and entered Bethesda Training School on November 1, 1911. She was invested on March 13, 1912 and completed nurses’ training in 1915. She worked at Bethesda Hospital and at Bethesda Home for Invalids. Later, she was parish deaconess at First Lutheran Church, St. Paul. In 1922, she contracted pulmonary tuberculosis and was ill for many years. In 1929, she was able to help with work at the Deaconess Home in Omaha, and she was consecrated there on September 14, 1930. She went the same month to Sweden to see her parents. Her illness recurred and she remained in Sweden, dying on January 26, 1942.

Further information on these deaconesses can be found in the ELCA archives. There is especially a lot of information on Sister Elvira, who wrote several autobiographical papers. There is also information in the archives on many other people and activities who have been active in the history of the ELCA and its predecessor bodies.