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We cannot be sure that any formal recognition of deaconesses as an institution of consecrated women aiding the clergy is to be found in the New Testament. There is indeed the mention of Phebe (Romans 16:1), who is called diakonos, but this may simply mean, as the Vulgate renders it, that she was "in the ministry [i.e. service] of the Church", without implying any official status. Again, it is not improbable that the "widows" who are spoken of at large in 1 Timothy 5:3-10, may really have been deaconesses, but here again we have nothing conclusive. That some such functionaries were appointed at an early date seems probable from Pliny's letter to Trajan concerning the Christians of Bithynia (Ep. X, 97, AD 112) There he speaks of obtaining information by torture from two ancillae quae ministrae dicebantur, where a technical use of words seems to be implied. In any case there can be no question that before the middle of the fourth century women were permitted to exercise certain definite functions in the Church and were known by the special name of diakonoi or diakonissai.

History and consecration

Most Catholic scholars incline to the view that it is not always possible to draw a clear distinction in the early Church between deaconesses and widows (cherai). The Didascalia, Apostolic Constitutions and kindred documents undoubtedly recognize them as separate classes and they prefer the deaconess to the widow in the duty of assisting the clergy. Indeed, the Apostolic Constitutions (III, 6) enjoin the widows to be obedient to the deaconesses. It is probable also, as Funk maintains, that in the earlier period it was only a widow who could become a deaconess, but undoubtedly the strict limits of age, sixty years, which were at first prescribed for widows, were relaxed, at least at certain periods and in certain localities, in the case of those to be appointed to be deaconesses; for example, the Council of Trullo in 692 fixed the age at forty. Tertullian speaks with reprobation of a girl of twenty in viduatu ab episcopo collocatam, by which he seems to mean ordained as a deaconess. There can again be no question that the deaconesses in the fourth and fifth centuries had a distinct ecclesiastical standing, though there are traces of much variety of custom. According to the newly discovered "Testament of Our Lord" (c. 400), widows had a place in the sanctuary during the celebration of the liturgy, they stood at the anaphora behind the presbyters, they communicated after the deacons, and before the readers and subdeacons, and strange to say they had a charge of, or superintendence over the deaconesses. Further it is certain that a ritual was in use for the ordination of deaconesses by the laying on of hands which was closely modeled on the ritual for the ordination of a deacon. For example, the Apostolic Constitutions say:

Concerning a deaconess, I, Bartholomew enjoin O Bishop, thou shalt lay thy hands upon her with all the Presbytery and the Deacons and the Deaconesses and thou shalt say: Eternal God, the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the creator of man and woman, that didst fill with the Spirit Mary and Deborah, and Anna and Huldah, that didst not disdain that thine only begotten Son should be born of a woman; Thou that in the tabernacle of witness and in the temple didst appoint women guardians of thy holy gates: Do thou now look on this thy handmaid, who is appointed unto the office of a Deaconess and grant unto her the Holy Spirit, and cleanse her from all pollution of the flesh and of the spirit, that she may worthily accomplish the work committed unto her, to thy glory and the praise of thy Christ.

Comparing this form with that given in the same work with that for the ordination of deacons we may notice that the reference to the outpouring of Holy Ghost in the latter case is much more strongly worded: "fill him with the spirit and with power as thou didst fill Stephen the martyr and follower of the sufferings of thy Christ". Moreover, in the case of the deacon, prayer is made that he "may be counted worthy of a higher standing", a clause which not improbably has reference to the possibility of advance to a higher ecclesiastical dignity as priest or bishop, no such praise being used in the case of the deaconess.

The subject of the precise status of the deaconess is confessedly obscure and confused, but two or three points at any rate seem worth insisting on. In the first place there were no doubt influences at work at one time or another which tended to exaggerate the position of these women-helpers. This tendency has found expression in certain documents which have come down to us and of which it is difficult to gauge the value. Still there is no more reason to attach importance to these pretensions than there is to regard seriously the spasmodic attempts of certain deacons to exceed their powers and to claim, for example, authority to consecrate. Both in the one and the other case the voice of the Church made itself heard in conciliar decrees and the abuse in the end was repressed without difficulty. Such restrictive measures seem to be found in the rather obscure 11th canon of Laodicea, and in the more explicit 19th canon of the Council of Nicaea, which last distinctly lays down that deaconesses are to be accounted as lay persons and that they receive no ordination properly so called (Hefele-LeClercq, Conciles, I, 618). In the West there seems always to have been considerable reluctance to accept the deaconesses, at any rate under that name, as a recognized institution of the Church. The Council of Nismes in 394 reproved in general the assumption of the levitical ministry by women, and other decrees, notably that of Orange in 411 (can. 26) forbid the ordaining of deaconesses altogether. It follows from what has been said that the Church as a whole repudiated the idea that women could in any proper sense be recipients of the Sacrament of Order. None the less in the East, and among the Syrians and Nestorians much more than among the Greeks (Hefele-LeClercq, Conciles, II, 448), the ecclesiastical status of deaconesses was greatly exaggerated.

Another source of confusion has always been introduced by those who have interpreted the word diaconissae, on the analogy of presbyterae and presbytides, episcopae and episcopissae, as the wives of deacons who, living apart from their husbands, acquired ipso facto an ecclesiastical character. No doubt such matrons who generously accepted this separation from their husbands were treated with special distinction and were supported by the Church, but if they became deaconesses, as in some cases they did, they had, like other women to fulfill certain conditions and to receive a special consecration. With regard to the duration of the order of deaconesses we note that when adult baptism became uncommon, this institution, which seems primarily to have been devised for the needs of women catechumens, gradually waned and in the end died out altogether. In the time of Justinian (d. 565) the deaconesses still held a position of importance. At the church of St. Sophia in Constantinople the staff consisted of sixty priests, one hundred deacons, forty deaconesses, and ninety subdeacons; but Balsamon, Patriarch of Antioch about A.D. 1070 states that deaconesses in any proper sense had ceased to exist in the Church though the title was borne by certain nuns (Robinson, Ministry of Deaconesses, p. 93), while Matthew Blastares declared of the tenth century that the civil legislation concerning deaconesses, which ranked them rather among the clergy than the laity had then been abandoned or forgotten (Migne, P.G., CXIX, 1272). In the West in spite of the hostile decrees of several councils of Gaul in the fifth and sixth centuries, we still find mention of deaconesses considerably after that date, though it is difficult to say whether the title was more than an honorific name attributed to consecrated virgins and widows. Thus we read in Fortunatus that St. Radegund was "ordained deaconess" by St. Medard (about A.D. 540 — Migne, P.L., LXXXVIII, 502) So also the ninth Ordo Romanus mentions, as forming part of the papal procession, the "feminae diaconissae et presbyterissae quae eodem die benedicantur" and diaconissae are mentioned in the procession of Leo III in the ninth century (Duchesne, Lib. Pont., II, 6) Further the Anglo-Saxon Leofric missal in the eleventh century still retained a prayer ad diaconissam faciendam which appears in the form Exaudi Domine, common to both deacons and deaconesses. The only surviving relic of the ordination of deaconesses in the West seems to be the delivery by the bishop of a stole and maniple to Carthusian nuns in the ceremony of their profession.

Functions of deaconesses

There can be no doubt that in their first institution the deaconesses were intended to discharge those same charitable offices, connected with the temporal well being of their poorer fellow Christians, which were performed for the men by the deacons. But in one particular, viz., the instruction and baptism of catechumens, their duties involved service of a more spiritual kind. The universal prevalence of baptism by immersion and the anointing of the whole body which preceded it, rendered it a matter of propriety that in this ceremony the functions of the deacons should be discharged by women. The Didascalia Apostolorum (III, 12; see Funk, Didascalia, etc., I, 208) explicitly direct that the deaconesses are to perform this function. It is probable that this was the starting point for the intervention of women in many other ritual observances even in the sanctuary. The Apostolic Constitutions expressly attribute to them the duty of guarding the doors and maintaining order amongst those of their own sex in the church, and they also (II, c. 26) assign to them the office of acting as intermediaries between the clergy and the women of the congregation; but on the other hand, it is laid down (Const. Apost., VIII, 27) that "the deaconess gives no blessing, she fulfills no function of priest or deacon", and there can be no doubt that the extravagances permitted in some places, especially in the churches of Syria and Asia, were in contravention of the canons generally accepted. We hear of them presiding over assemblies of women, reading the Epistle and Gospel, distributing the Blessed Eucharist to nuns, lighting the candles, burning incense in the thuribles, adorning the sanctuary, and anointing the sick (see Hefele-LeClercq, II, 448). All these things must be regarded as abuses which ecclesiastical legislation was not long in repressing.

Deaconesses in Protestant communions

Outside the Catholic Church the name of deaconesses has been adopted for a modern revival which has had great vogue in Germany and to some extent in the United States. It was begun in 1833 by the Lutheran pastor Fliedner at Kaiserswerth near Düsseldorf. His first inspiration is said to have been derived from the Quakeress Elizabeth Fry, and through the celebrated Miss Florence Nightingale, who organized a staff of nurses in the Crimean War and who had previously been trained at Kaiserswerth, the revival at a later date attracted a good deal of attention in England. The main work of deaconesses is the tending of the sick and poor, instruction and district visiting, but with more subordination to parish needs than is usually compatible with the life of an Anglican sisterhood. In the United States more particularly, community life is usually not insisted upon, but a good deal of attention is given to training and intellectual development. Both in the Anglican Church, and in the Protestant Episcopal Church, and Methodist Episcopal Church of America, deaconesses are "admitted" in solemn form by the bishop with benediction and the laying on of hands. In Germany the movement has taken such hold that the Kaiserswerth organization alone claims to number over 16,000 sisters, but it is curious that relatively to the population the institution is more popular in Catholic districts, where probably the familiar spectacle of Catholic nuns has accustomed the people to the idea of a community life for women.


Permaneder and Hundhausen in Kirchenlex., III, 1675-1692; Kraus, R. Encyc. d. Christ. Alterthum., s.v. Diakonissen, I, 358-361; and Vidua, II, 947-951; Hefele-LeClercq, Conciles, (Paris, 1907), I, 615 sq., and especially II, 447-452, where the subject is treated very fully, but not without inaccuracies; Onslow in Dict. Christ. Antiq., s.v. Deaconess; Wordsworth, The Ministry of Grace, (London, 1901), 264-282; Robinson, The Ministry of Deaconesses, (London, 1898); Schaefer, Die Weib, Diakonie (Hamburg, 1887-1894); Zscharnack, Dienst der Frau in d. erst. Christ. Jahrh. (Gottingen, 1902); Goltz, Dienst der Frau in d. Christ. Kirche (Leipzig, 1905) Achelis, in R.E.f. Prot. Theol., IV, 616-620; Reville, Le Role des Veuves, etc. Bibliotheque des Hautes Etudes et Sciences Religieuses, V, 231-251; Church Quarterly Review (1899).

About this page

APA citation. Thurston, H. (1908). Deaconesses. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Thurston, Herbert. "Deaconesses." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Deacon Tom Crossett. For Sandy.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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