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Women in the Methodist Deaconess Movement

Lucy Rider Meyer, principal of the Chicago Training School for City, Home, and Foreign Missions, played a critical role in the revival of the deaconess office in the United Methodist Church. She has been designated as “the mother of the Methodist deaconess movement.” In June 1887, the first deaconess home was organized by Mr. and Mrs. Meyer. At General Conference in 1888, the deaconess office became a part of the regular organization of the church. (Lucy Rider Meyer Digital Collection)

One of the early pamphlets housed in the library archives entitled “The Deaconess Work” describes deaconesses as “Trained and costumed women who offer themselves, and are set apart, for the service of the church.” The work of the deaconess is to “nurse the sick both in hospitals and as private nurses. They visit from house to house, are missionary workers and pastor’s assistants. They have charge of missions in the poor quarters of the city. They are evangelists, traveling over the country as need arises. They work with children, both as caretakers in orphanages and as kindergarten and industrial teachers. They have charge of old people’s homes. They are gospel singers. Many are foreign missionaries. Some who have business talent are directing the affairs of Deaconess hospitals and other institutions. Some are editors, stenographers, and office helpers.” (Scrapbook #2, CTS Digital Collections: Chicago Training School: The Deaconess Work)

Displayed are several photographs of three graduates of the first two classes of deaconesses (1889 and 1890) identified as Mary Jefferson, Ellen Hibbard, and Isabelle Reeves. Additional information about the women appears on the back of one photograph: “Miss E J Hibbard in 1908 Editor of Deaconess Journal Boston, Mass,” and “Miss Jefferson in 1908 Supt [Superintendent] of Agard Rest Home Lake Bluff, Ill.” The photograph of Ellen Hibbard (alone), Class of 1890, shows her wearing the “First costume worn by a graduate deaconess in America.”

All are wearing the deaconess costume, designed to be simple for reasons of economy and protection as well as to identify the women as deaconesses. Shown in the pictures are the fronts and backs of the deaconess costume, which consisted of a plain black dress with white collar and cuffs, and a black bonnet with white ties knotted under the chin. Because Mrs. Meyer wore the costume when she informally led the pupils who volunteered for deaconess service, she is credited with being “the first woman in the world to wear the American Methodist deaconess costume.”

Also displayed is a photograph of Hilda S. Steele, a 1910 graduate of the Chicago Training School, along with her CTS pin, the Deaconess document setting her apart for service, and a Certificate of Recognition in appreciation of her fifty years of service as a Methodist deaconess. She was also issued “A Certificate of Service” dated April 1, 1964, which honorably relieved her from active duty and gave her retired status after fifty-four years of service. She died in Bethany Home on August 7, 1972.

For further information, see:

Library Web Site []/Digital Collections/The Chicago Training School Archives and Lucy Rider Meyer Archives. Also “In Their Time: A History of the Chicago Training School on the Occasion of its Centennial Celebration 1885-1985.”

Woman’s Home Missionary Society. “The Early History of Deaconess Work and Training Schools for Women in American Methodism, 1883-1885.” In The American Deaconess Movement in the Early Twentieth Century, edited by Carolyn De Swarte Gifford, 3-46. New York: Garland Publishing, 1987.