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  • Writer's pictureGrace Episcopal Church

The Deaconess Movement and the Episcopal Church

By Deacon Mary Delancey

In the early church there were women set apart as deaconesses to minister to the sick, the poor, and those in prison. They also ministered and took communion to women who could not come to church (as it was not socially appropriate for a man to visit alone). They also served the very important function of assisting in the baptism of women. Baptism in the early church was by immersion and the person was baptized naked. The deaconess was there to accompany the woman being baptized. As the church became more institutionalized the role of the deaconesses in the church began to fade away. With the practice of infant baptism, and the change from baptism by immersion, the assistance of a woman was no longer desired by the church and by 1070 there were no longer women set apart as deaconesses.


It wasn’t until the early 1800’s that we hear of deaconesses again. At that time a social and philanthropic movement of concern and care of those in need began in Germany and spread to Europe, and eventually the United States and other parts of the world. Women who served in this movement became known as deaconesses. Although given support by local churches, they were not connected to an organization of churches or denominations and would not be so for several decades.


In 1857 the six first deaconesses in the Episcopal Church were set apart by the bishop of Maryland. Deaconesses became official at General Convention in 1888. Deaconesses ministered as nurses, teachers, chaplains, caregivers, administrators, fundraisers and missionaries; both within the U.S. and around the world. One of the most well known Episcopal Deaconess was Harriet Bedell, the Deaconess of the Everglades, who lived among and ministered to the Seminoles in South Florida. She was an amazing woman who served into her 80’s until a hurricane destroyed her church and all her possessions. She went to live in the Bishop Gray Inn in Davenport, where she “took charge” of the locals until her death in January 1969, at the age of 94. Her remarkable life and ministry is recognized by the Episcopal Church with her feast day on January 8.

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