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04 October 2010
  + Theodor Fliedner +
4 October AD 1864

Theodor FliednerThe early Church entrusted some women, particularly widows, with helping to carry out the "social work" of the Church, particularly caring for the sick and needy of the congregation. From reading 1 Timothy 5:1-16, it appears that certain of these women were specially consecrated and made a lifetime commitment to works of mercy. The idea of a female deaconate or service order largely died out by the 7th Century AD, although some groups of nuns and a few informally organized groups undertook similar work.

The modern deaconess movement came mainly through the work of Theodor Fliedner, a German Lutheran. Born in Eppstein, Germany, in 1800, he became pastor of a small parish in Kaiserswerth in 1821 or 1822. Fliedner took the work of England's Elizabeth Fry and Dutch Mennonites as inspiration. Encountering Moravian deaconesses, he also drew from their example.

He began serving the Düsseldorf Prison, walking to and from Düsseldorf on alternating Sundays until the appointment of a regular prison chaplain. This led to more prisons engaging chaplains and establishing regular worship and aid services for the prisoners. He envisioned and opened a nursery school; eventually it became a sort of teachers' college and a starting point for what would become his first deaconess school.

William PassavantBecoming more involved in Christian social work among the disadvantaged, Fliedner convinced himself that he should revive the order of deaconesses. He opened a hospital and deaconess training center in Kaiserswerth on 13 October 1836. Florence Nightingale heard of his reputation, visited the school in the 1840s, came back to study nursing, and graduated in 1851.

The program was so successful that he could send deaconesses to other hospitals by 1838. New deaconess motherhouses grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and in Jerusalem, Paris, Berlin, and Strasbourg, and elsewhere. When he died, 30 motherhouses already stood and over 1500 deaconesses served around the world. The middle of the 20th century saw more than 35,000 deaconesses serving world-wide.

Lutherans in the United States may also want to remember William Passavant, who pioneered the American deaconess movement in 1849. He also founded missions, hospitals, orphanages, and schools. Passavant died 3 January 1894.

Additional information available from Wikipedia and James Kiefer.

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