Columns, Faithful and Reforming

Sr. Elisabeth Fedde and the Norwegian-American deaconesses

As a young woman in Norway, Elisabeth Fedde felt a strong desire for a life of service. But when a friend suggested that she consider deaconess work, she replied, “Do you mean those women we see on the streets wearing peculiar dress? No thank you. I shall not join them.”

Later, when she learned more about the diaconal mission — to serve God by serving others — she decided to apply. In 1873, she entered The Deaconess House in Kristiania (Oslo) and began two years of training in nursing, Christian ethics, and social welfare. There she began 27 years of active service as a deaconess, a calling that brought her to America to serve the Norwegian immigrants.

On Christmas 1882, following a difficult four-year assignment in Tromsø, in the far north, Sr. Elisabeth received a letter from her brother-in-law, Gabriel Fedde, asking her to come to Brooklyn to begin deaconess work “here among the poor and lost Norwegians.” Responding to this plea, Sr. Elisabeth arrived in New York in April 1883, knowing no English, and without any Norwegian sponsorship.

Susan Corey Everson

In 1888, Sr. Elisabeth interrupted her ministry in Brooklyn to begin deaconess work in Minneapolis.

Within nine days she helped establish the Voluntary Relief Society for the Sick and Poor Among Norwegians in New York and Brooklyn with a mission “to help the poor and suffering countrymen and women in their spiritual and bodily need” — the beginning of Norwegian Lutheran Deaconess work in America.

There was plenty of need, not only in homes and overcrowded hospitals, but also on ships in the harbor and out in the streets. The immigrant community suffered from disease, unemployment, alcohol abuse, overcrowded housing, and the struggle to adapt to a strange culture.

Sr. Elisabeth’s diary records the broad scope of her work in those years. She made hundreds of home visits where, in addition to nursing and maternity care, she often cleaned and laundered. She spent hours soliciting and distributing money and essentials, placed patients in hospitals, arranged for burials, visited prisons, found foster care, tried to locate employment, and offered much needed spiritual support. Frequently exhausted and discouraged, she called on her deep faith to give her strength to continue.

God’s work, Sr. Elisabeth’s hands

Sr. Elisabeth found so much need that she soon persuaded leaders of the Relief Society to start a hospital and deaconess home. By March of 1885, she and a board of managers had rented a house in Brooklyn with room for a nine-bed hospital and living quarters for herself and other deaconesses, although it was soon clear that a larger hospital was needed.

In 1888, Sr. Elisabeth interrupted her ministry in Brooklyn to begin deaconess work in Minneapolis. She was contacted by Prof. Sven Oftedal and others who hoped to establish a deaconess hospital there. One generous donor offered a house free for two years if she would stay to organize the work and equip the hospital and deaconess home.

Granted a leave by her board, she agreed to accept the challenge. On November 2, 1888, she and two probationers moved into the home and, a few days later, opened a hospital in four rooms.

In 1889, Sr. Elisabeth was called back to Brooklyn. Within months of her departure, the Minneapolis venture fell apart. She returned that summer to find that the hospital board had disbanded and work was at a standstill. At her urging, Prof. Georg Sverdrup of Augburg Seminary organized a new board, and, in August 1889, The Norwegian Lutheran Deaconess Institute incorporated. By the end of that year, there were eight sisters.

But new trouble lay ahead. In 1891, after a dispute with her board, Sr. Elisabeth resigned and returned to Brooklyn to resume her position. This time the work in Minneapolis continued and thrived. The board bought new property for a larger home and hospital, and, by 1899, the Deaconess Institute had 11 deaconesses and 20 probationers. At its peak in 1912, there were 52 sisters.

In Brooklyn, a 30-bed Deaconess Hospital was built in 1889; Sr. Elisabeth called it “the first charitable institution among our people in America.” The need for funding continued to be crucial. In 1894, Sr. Elisabeth secured a $4,000 annual state subsidy for the Brooklyn hospital by appealing to a committee of the state legislature in Albany where she argued that Deaconess Hospital served all nationalities and creeds and deserved to receive the same funding as other community hospitals.

Weary and needing rest, Sr. Elisabeth resigned from the Brooklyn Deaconess Hospital and returned to Norway in 1896 where she married Ole Slettebø. While there was still work to be done, in only 13 years her determination and bold leadership had built the Norwegian Lutheran Deaconess community in America and helped to found two major hospitals, one in Brooklyn and the other in Minneapolis.

Susan Corey Everson is emerita professor of English at California Lutheran University. She is a former director of education for Women of the American Lutheran Church, a predecessor body of the ELCA.

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