Today the church honors not only important saints, but an important tradition and order of service within the church: the Deaconess tradition.
Frederike, Theodor, and Karolina Fliedner are honored today, October 5th, as Renewers of Society for re-imagining the Deaconess order, a movement of the church that continues today in Deacons and Deaconesses throughout the world.
In the early church, the ancient order of Deaconesses were utilized to care for the sick, for needy women, to instruct women for the catechumenate, and to assist in the baptism of women. We find this all documented in the 3rd and 4th Century texts, the “Didascalia” and the “Apostolic Constitutions.”
When adult baptisms became rare, the role of Deaconesses declined in popularity and importance, and by the 7th Century the female diaconate nearly died out.
Until the Moravians got a hold of it.
In the early 1800’s Theodor Fliedner, a newly ordained pastor in the Lutheran church, made a tour of Holland and England to raise money for the church. There he encountered Moravian Deaconesses engaged in Christian service. The Moravian movement had revived the role in the mid 1700’s.
Inspired by their work, Fliedner went back to Kaiserswerth (where he had his little parish), and started conducting services at the prison in neighboring Dusseldorf, the first Lutheran ministry of its kind. His prison ministry grew and spread throughout the Rhineland and Westphalia, and even into the Netherlands, England, and Scotland. He eventually opened the Magdalen home for released women prisoners, and then a nursery school in Dusseldorf.
Pastor Fliedner, inspired by all this movement, decided to reinvigorate the role of Deaconess within the church, and opened a hospital and Deaconess-training institute in Kaiserwerth, a largely Catholic city. In 1836 it was officially opened, and Ms. Gertrude Reichardt, the daughter of a physician, became the first Deaconess trained there. Frederike Fliedner. Pastor Fliedner’s spouse, became the first Mother Superior of the house, and almost immediately Deaconesses were deployed to serve in the city hospital at Eberfeld.
Frederike Fliedner was wise and wonderful. She practiced simplicity, frugality, and charity toward all, and instilled these virtues in her Deaconess charges. Unfortunately, Frederike would die in 1842, leaving a large absence in the institution.
Pastor Fliedner married Karolina Bertheau about a year after Frederike’s death. Karolina had been the director of a hospital in Hamburg, and quickly proved herself to be a talented Mother Superior, following in Frederike’s footsteps.
Karolina came to be known as Mother Fliedner, and led the Deaconesses in their work for forty years, about half of which were after Pastor Fliedner’s death.
In 1849, at the invitation of William Passavant, Pastor Fliedner brought four deaconesses to Pittsburgh to staff the Infirmary that Passavant had established there. Motherhouses soon began to be founded all over the world, from the Middle East (Jerusalem, Smyrna, and Constantinople), to Paris, Strasbourg, Dresden, and Berlin.
At the time of Fliedner’s death there were 30 Motherhouses around the world and over 1600 Deaconesses, from Pittsburgh to Jerusalem.
By the late 20th Century there were over 35,000 Deaconesses on every continent and in every province where Lutheranism has a presence.
Eventually a Motherhouse was begun in Philadelphia in 1884, with the support of John Lankenau (fun fact: Lankenau is still the name of a dormitory at Valparaiso University). This was the first Motherhouse in the United States.
Today Deaconesses and Deacons from this tradition serve as pastors, teachers, doctors, youth directors, non-profit managers, and in professions of all kinds. Deaconesses and Deacons serve where and how they are called. It has always been so, and remains so.
Check out the Diaconal community at Valparaiso University at http://www.thelda.org, and the ELCA’s Diaconal roster at https://www.elca.org/Resources/Word-and-Service-Roster.
The Fliedner’s are a reminder for me, and hopefully for the whole church, that we must raise up leaders to serve in all ways, not just in the pastorate.
-historical pieces painstakingly sifted from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations
-love and devotion for Deaconesses and Deacons everywhere by me