In 1890, American Mennonite women had few opportunities to serve the church in a formal capacity. Pastoral ministry was reserved for men, and Mennonite mission work was still in its infancy. David Goerz wanted to expand the opportunities.
A minister and one of the founders of Bethel College in Kansas, Goerz introduced the concept of deaconesses to the 1890 triennial session of the General Conference Mennonite Church. Deaconesses were not a new idea. Christian congregations, including European Mennonite ones, had long had them to minister to other women. Borrowing from a growing movement in Europe and the United States, Goerz’s deaconess proposal was for single women trained as nurses and affiliated with a “mother house.” It had similarities to a Catholic convent.
The deaconess topic came up several times in 1890s but remained just an idea until 1900. That’s when Goerz, living in Newton, Kan., met a teenager in nearby Halstead. Frieda Kaufman was an immigrant from Germany with an interest in nursing and deaconess work.
Goerz and Kaufman’s meeting happened shortly before he was sent to India by the General Conference Mennonite Church with a load of grain for distribution in response to a famine. Goerz vowed to commit himself to the deaconess cause when he returned. He came back with more than just determination. Returning to Kansas via Russia, he also carried $150 donated by Russian Mennonites, who had their own deaconess program.
Kaufman started the journey to becoming a deaconess by studying at Bethel for two years. The Bethel Deaconess Hospital and Home Society was organized in 1903, but a hospital was slow in coming to fruition. So following the completion of her training in 1904, Kaufman went to work at GC-affiliated Bethesda Hospital in Goessel, Kan., while waiting for a Mennonite deaconess hospital to be built.
By then, the sisterhood had added three more members: Catherine Voth, Ida Epp and Martha Richert. Richert went to Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church at Goessel in 1905 to work as a parish nurse. There she was ordained in 1907, becoming the first North American Mennonite woman ordained for church work.
Epp, Kaufman and Voth were ordained in 1908 with the opening of Bethel Deaconess Home and Hospital in Newton. Kaufman was sister-in-charge, deaconess mother, hospital chaplain and public relations director. Voth was head of the operating room, supervisor of the floors, laboratory technician and a part-time instructor in the nurses training program. Epp had housekeeping responsibilities in addition to her nursing duties.
The deaconess movement soon spread across the General Conference Mennonite Church. Epp went to Mountain Lake, Minn., in 1911 to help establish a deaconess hospital, which became an extension of the Newton program. Two deaconesses went to staff a hospital in American Falls, Idaho, while its deaconess candidates were in training at Newton. A deaconess hospital was established in Beatrice, Neb., in 1911.
The deaconess movement was not limited to the General Conference Mennonite Church. In 1890, the year Goerz made his proposal, Berne, Ind., Mennonite John A. Sprunger also started a program. A successful businessman, the enterprising Sprunger had turned his attention to church work after the death of his only child in 1888. He started an orphanage, a publishing house and a hospital, in addition to a deaconess training school. But all of Sprunger’s ventures were independent and never affiliated with a Mennonite denomination. They were also short-lived.
More successful was the deaconess program of the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren (now part of the Mennonite Brethren). The Salem Home and Hospital was founded in Hillsboro, Kan., in 1918, including a deaconess training school. Deaconesses served in both the hospital and the home.
The deaconess movement would have a limited lifespan. Candidates for the sisterhood started decreasing in the 1930s and dropped to a trickle after World War II. The last candidate to join the Newton mother house was in 1958. But the deaconess movement left a fine legacy. In addition to providing Mennonite women unprecedented opportunities to serve God’s people, today’s hospitals in American Falls, Beatrice, Hillsboro and Newton, all unaffiliated with any Mennonite group, plus retirement communities in Hillsboro and North Newton, Kan., are descendants of Mennonite deaconess programs.
Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind.