On a spring evening in April 1873, a large crowd gathered in Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, a small frame building near the southeast corner of Eighteenth Street and Capitol Avenue in Omaha, Nebraska. They had come to witness a most unusual event in city and Episcopal Church history. Mary Ellen Hayden, a widow with four teen-aged children, was going to recite vows by which Bishop Robert Harper Clarkson would set apart as a deaconess in the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska. She was one of only a handful of women whose calls to serve Christ in His Church were acknowledged by the institutional Episcopal Church in the late nineteenth century. In Nebraska and on the Great Plains, the pastoral role and responsibility of accepting that call had heretofore been acknowledged only when it was heard by a male. Over the next dozen years in the Diocese of Nebraska, two other deaconesses served in Trinity Cathedral parish. Their work was reflective of women’s growing professional role beyond the home, and their efforts were extensive and unique in diocesan program ended abruptly. Over a century passed before the first four women were ordained as permanent deacons in December 8, 1985. Across America in the late-nineteenth century, women were generally welcomed as participants in secular parish and community-building activities. Their efforts ranged from the organization of fundraising events, such as pie sales and harvest festivals, to the administration of social reform activities, such as suffrage and temperance rallies. However, some women experienced a spiritual call to pastorally minister to the ill and marginalized in their communities. Although by the early 1870’s some Episcopal clergymen in the eastern United States acknowledged that women also had spiritual gifts for ministry, the Church offered no avenues through which women could exercise their pastoral skills. While the early church had ordained women to assist with gender-sensitive rituals, women had not had an ordained role in the Church for several hundred years.
However, as women’s roles in society expanded in the post Civil-War era, several deaconess programs emerged in the dioceses. Although distant from his East Coast colleagues, Bishop Clarkson’s experiences led him to conclude that women were also called to pastoral ministry. By establishing a deaconess program, he placed Nebraska women at the intersection of secular and spiritual community. Interested in reading the rest of this article by Jo L. Wetherilt Behrens? Check out the Fall 2016 issue of Nebraska History. The article is entitled “Women at the Intersection of Secular and Spiritual Community: The Deaconess Program in Episcopal Bishop Robert Harper Clarkson’s Nebraska Diocese.”