Deaconess, a female officer of the early church. The institution of deaconesses originated with the apostles, as is clear from Rom. xvi. 1. They are called elders, in canon xi. of the council of Laodicea, and by St. Epiphanius, because none were chosen for this office but elderly widows. Tertullian says that deaconesses were "widows, mothers, at least 40 years of age, and married only once." Their principal functions were to have charge of the door by which women were admitted to the matroneum, or that part of the church set apart for them, and to preside over them while there; to instruct the catechumens of their own sex; to assist the bishop in the solemn baptism of females, and to perform for him all the unctions, except those on the head; to have especial care of the female sick and poor, and to be present in all conversations held by bishops, priests, and deacons with women. In the times of persecution, when prudence forbade sending deacons to visit imprisoned Christians, the deaconesses performed this office of charity. (Const. Apost., iii. 19.) The order of deaconesses was still in existence in the East at the beginning of the 8th century, and it is quite uncertain when it entirely disappeared there.
In the greatest number of Latin churches it had fallen into disuse in the 5th century, and its very name was unknown in the 10th. The order was abrogated in France by the council of Orange, A. D. 441, and after this gradually died out in the western church, but in the Greek church continued until the 12th century. Its place is taken in the Roman Catholic church by their various religious orders and congregations. (See Ziegler, Be Diaconis et Diaconissis veteris Ecclesim, xix.) - In recent times the title has been revived in Protestant churches for the so-called institutions or houses of deaconesses, which are communities of women established in several Protestant denominations for purposes of Christian charity, and in particular for nursing the sick. Several attempts made by the reformed churches in the 16th century to revive the apostolical institution of deaconesses proved unsuccessful. In 1836 Pastor Fliedner, of the United Evangelical church of Prussia, established an institution of deaconesses at Kaiserswerth in Rhenish Prussia. The sisters, after a probationary period, engage to serve at least five years, but are allowed to leave during this time if nearer personal or family duties should call for a change of situation.
The institution of Kaiserswerth has gradually enlarged its sphere of action and added to the original infirmary an orphan asylum, a normal school, an insane asylum, and a house of refuge for dissolute women. The number of stations established in other parts of Germany and in foreign countries amounted in 1870 to 400; among them were Pesth, Bucharest, Bosna-Serai, Constantinople, Smyrna, Beyrout, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. After this model of Kaiserswerth other "mother houses" (Mutterhduser) of deaconesses have been established at Strasburg (1842), Dresden (1842), Berlin (1843), London (1848), and other places. A house was established in Pittsburgh, Pa., in 1849, by Pastor Fliedner in person. In 1872 there were altogether 48 mother houses or distinct communities of deaconesses, with an aggregate of 2,657 sisters and 648 stations. General conferences of representatives of all the institutions take place from time to time. The fourth was held on Sept. 18 and 19, 1872, at Kaiserswerth, and was attended by representatives of nearly all the institutions. (See Sisterhoods).