Pliny the Younger attests to the existence of deaconesses in the church in Bithynia in the second century, and documents of the late third and fourth centuries (including the Didascalia and the Apostolic Constitutions) describe the ministry and duties of deaconesses, including assisting at the baptism of women and visiting and ministering to the sick. The ministry disappeared in the West and declined in the East for a number of centuries but was revived in the Lutheran Church in 1836, when Pastor Theodor Fliedner opened the first deaconess motherhouse at Kaiserswerth am Rhein. In the following decades, other deaconess communities were founded in Lutheran population centers both in America and in Europe.
In 1858, following the death of her invalid mother, Elizabeth Catherine Ferard was encouraged by Bishop Archibald Tait of London to explore a religious vocation by visiting Kaiserswerth am Rhein and other deaconess institutions in Germany. Three years later, in November 1861, she and a group of women dedicated themselves “to minister to the necessities of the Church, as servants in the Church”. On July 18, 1862, Elizabeth received a deaconess license from Bishop Tait, making her the first deaconess in the Church of England and in the Anglican Communion. She went on to found a community with a dual vocation of being deaconesses and religious sisters, working first in a poor parish in the King’s Cross area of London, and then moving to Notting Hill in 1873. When her health failed, she passed on the leadership to others and died on Easter Day in 1883.
To understand the ministry of the deaconess, we need only turn to Elizabeth’s own work, Of the Deaconess Office in General, where she writes:
“Deaconesses have, according to the apostolical regulations, the office of serving the Christian congregation as Phoebe served the Church at Cenchraea. To them is committed the care of the sick, the poor, the education of your children, and generally the help of the needy of whatever kind. And also it is their office to be helpers, either directly or indirectly, of the ministers of the Church.
“They must, therefore, have the qualities which the Apostle requires from deacons (Acts 6:8). They must first, be of good report; and second, be full of faith and good works.”
From Ferard’s deaconess community in London, deaconesses were eventually introduced into many Anglican Churches. The office of deaconess has disappeared in those Anglican Churches that ordain women to the diaconate, but the office has been maintained as a commissioned or consecrated lay ministry for women in a number of traditional Anglican Churches, including the Reformed Episcopal Church and the Anglican Province in America.
taken from Celebrating the Saints and other sources
Almighty God, you have surrounded us with a great cloud of witnesses: Grant that we, encouraged by the good example of your servant Elizabeth Ferard, may persevere in running the race that is set before us, until at last we may with her attain to your eternal joy; through Jesus Christ, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.