AT FIRST, Elizabeth Ferard wondered whether her stay at the Kaiserwerth Lutheran community in Germany was going to be a waste of time. The food was dismal. After her first meal, she felt dizzy, and had to take some brandy.
For some days, no one seemed to know what to do with her. Pastor Fliedner, the director, ignored her. She found the dialect the sisters spoke quite different from the German she had learnt. But, after some weeks, things got better. She was not the first Englishwoman to be trained at Kaiserwerth. Florence Nightingale had been there a few years before, and so had Elizabeth Fry. Despite the evidence of these doughty women, Pastor Fliedner had misgivings.
But Elizabeth persevered. When she returned to London some months later, she had learnt much that would shape her work as a trainer of deaconesses. She also stayed with the Anglican nuns at Ditchingham. Later, it was the devotional life at Ditchingham rather than Kaiserwerth that influenced her when she drew up a scheme of prayer for her Community of St Andrew at King’s Cross.
During the early days, the basis of the deaconesses’ devotional life was the BCP morning and evening prayer, with time for meditation and private Bible study. It was 20 or so years later that the Rule was altered to include the six daily Offices.
Despite appearances (Elizabeth had been fussed one summer afternoon in Germany by the loss of her parasol), the first generation of deaconesses in the Church of England was not daunted by what Bishop Thorold, one of their champions, called the “filth and hideous darkness” of the slums.
During the 1872 cholera epidemic in Bedford, it was a deaconess, Fanny Eagles, and her assistant, Miss Coles, who nursed the sick and dying, and helped to carry the corpses out to the carts for collection at night.
The North London Deaconess Institution was the first, but not the only establishment of its kind. In 1869, deaconesses were appointed in Liverpool and in Bedford. There had been earlier initiatives. In 1857, Mrs L. N. Raynard had recruited “Bible Women” to work in the Seven Dials district of London. In 1861, the Revd W. C. Pennefather and his wife had founded the Female Missionary Training Home in Barnet.
What characterised the development of the work of deaconesses, and secured their place in the Church of England, was their integration into the diocesan and parochial system. It was that, and the deliberate absence of life-vows, that distinguished them from the Anglican sisterhoods.
It was intended that theirs was to be a serving, not a leading, part. At the Office for the admission of a deaconess, the Bishop exhorted the candidate “to set aside all unwomanly usurpation of authority in the Church”. But it soon became clear that many women who had been blessed with a talent to serve were also possessed of a vocation to lead.
Someone who knew Elizabeth Ferard said of her: “She was a manager of decision and power, and not inclined to brook interference especially on household matters.” She saw what was needed, and got it done.
The Revd Adrian Leak is Priest-in-Charge of St Michael and All Angels, Withyham, in Chichester diocese.