The February 8th edition of Living Church magazine has a feature story on the history of Church of our Savior, North Platte. Click here to view the story on the living church website at http://www.livingchurch.org/material-history
The culmination of four years of in depth research and digging into the rich history of the Church of Our Savior in North Platte was recognized recently when the Stephen Kay Heritage Room was dedicated by Bishop Scott Barker in early September,
The room, named in honor of COS historian, Steve Kay, features tall recessed and lighted display cases, a storage room with shelves for documents, a special picture hanging system for the west wall, and room for displays on the north and south walls as well.
The process which led to the new facility actually began four years ago when Steve began doing some research on COS history. “I started with finding pictures of all the priests that had served Church of Our Savior,” Steve said. “We had a list of names but not many pictures so I began researching all the places they had served after leaving COS and contacted those places as well as doing internet searches and found all the pictures except for one, Actually, I found it (the Rev John Gray), but it was of such poor quality it could not be reproduced.”
Steve worked with Don Milroy, a member of the parish and a photographer as well as owner of Brown Harano Studio in North Platte, and got all the images restored and framed. “I had found over 100 pictures of the 27 priests that have served COS over parts of three centuries and I worked with Don to pick the best one for each person.”
The priest pictures are now displayed in a gallery in the main hall at Church of Our Savior.
In addition to getting the pictures, Steve also made contacts with many people. “When getting pictures of the priests I made contact with many families of the priests and that has been most interesting,” Direct ancestors of the first priest to serve COS attended the dedication of the Heritage Room after driving down from Minneapolis, MN. Steve provided copies of all the pictures to the National Episcopal Archives in Austin, TX.
Once completing this project Steve then set his sights on researching the Japanese heritage of Church of Our Savior, especially the ministry of Hiram Hisanori Kano. In connection with Father Jeffrey Nelson, current priest at COS, Steve began to put together pictures and a history of the Japanese mission congregation in North Platte (St George’s.)
He was greatly aided in his research by photos placed in scrapbooks by the Rev Francis Pryor and his wife in the 1930’s and 1940’s. These pictures were scanned and restored by Don Milroy and displays were made and put out for people to view on display boards and tables in the main hallway at COS.
The pictures generated a great renewal of interest in the Japanese congregation and Father Nelson and Steve began discussions of ways to honor and recognize this important part of the heritage of Church of Our Savior. Steve then found an article about a sermon preached about Father Kano, organizer and priest of St George’s, by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Shori.. Working with Father Nelson and Brian Gardner, Senior Warden at the time, it was decided to invite the Presiding Bishop to come to North Platte and join in recognizing the ministry of Father Kano. Father Nelson extended the invitation to the Presiding Bishop and she came to North Platte the weekend of July 28-29. 2012 to join in the celebration of Father Kano’s ministry, not only in North Platte but in Mitchell as well.
The event was filmed and placed on the website of the national Episcopal Church and was noted in several national church publications.
Following this event, Steve began to concentrate more on the history of COS Itself and began to dig in closets. files, and drawers throughout the facility. Steve dug through closets not only in the church building itself but in the adjoining Educational Wing and also the Sacristies. He kept an eye out for historically significant artifacts, documents, and photos.
“One of the most interesting items I found were the brass items donated by the Foley family in 1889.,” Steve pointed out, “They were all used in the first church building built in 1872-73.” Steve also located the original documents of incorporation of the parish and the actual record of the order for the first bell for the church! “I was also able to find newspaper articles reporting on the Consecration of the second church building for COS in 1893.”
So that all of the information that Steve has found is not lost to future generations, Steve has authored a book entitled “Church of Our Savior – Our Second Century of Service”. The book reports on the time period from 1967 to the present and builds upon an earlier book telling of the earlier history of COS called “Travails and Triumphs” authored by Sharon Hollen, another member of Church of Our Savior. The new book is $20 and can be purchased through the church office at COS.
“What really amazes me is how much this parish has done for the city of North Platte,” Steve says. At one time or another we have sponsored a hospital, a school, a Sunday School for children on the north side of the city Many of the projects the parish undertakes today such as the Wednesday community meals, the free haircuts for students returning to school, and the like are in the spirit of these previous outreaches.”
The new Stephen Kay Heritage Room is currently featuring displays of original photographs taken of the damage to the previous church structure by a fire which destroyed that building in July. 1962. Some artifacts from that building are on display. Also photographs of the construction of the current COS facility and pictures of the corner stone laying and the consecration of the new building in September, 1964 are on display. Also being featured in the Heritage Room at this time are the artifacts placed in the cornerstone of the church in 1963 and removed recently to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the building.
Displays in the room will be changed periodically to reflect different eras of parish history. Two large glass display cases sit outside the room and also feature elements and pictures of COS history. Those displays will be changed periodically as well.
The Stephen Kay Heritage Room is located to the south of the main hallway at COS and just opposite of the Fireside Room. The Heritage Room is open during regular business hours and on Sunday during worship services.
“I think Church of Our Savior has one of the most interesting histories among the parishes of the Diocese of Nebraska”, Steve reported. “It’s great to see this story on display in the new Heritage Room.”
“Church of Our Savior’s story is the story of service to others,” Steve said.
– Brian Gardner
Did you know that Church of Our Savior sponsored a hospital in North Platte at one time? Were you aware that COS also had a “North Side Chapel” for several years? Do you know where the first Episcopal service was held in North Platte? Pieces of the altar in St George’s Chapel at COS were carved from wood from two different bars in North Platte – do you know where these bars used to stand?
You can find out the answers to these questions and more as the next event for the “Year of Celebrations” at Church of Our Savior will be an Historical Tour on Sunday evening, June 15th, beginning at 6:30 pm.
The tour will start with a short prayer service on the site of the Union Pacific Hotel which stood from 1866-1869 on the corner of Front and Dewey Streets, on the north side of Front Street. It was at this location in late May, 1867, where the first Episcopal service was held in North Platte.
Following the prayer service, tour itineraries will be handed out and the tour will be self guided so people attending need to have their own transportation. There will be 13 different sites for people to drive by and see and two of the former Rectories will be open for tours – the first rectory built in 1873 and the second rectory which once stood where the west parking lot now is located at COS.
Approximately an hour to an hour and a half’s time will be allotted for the tour and then participants are invited back to the church for light refreshment and discussion of the various sites with pictures. Parish Historian Steve Kay will answer questions and present additional material about each site.
The Year of Celebrations is marking the147th year since the first Episcopal services were held in North Platte, the141st anniversary of the construction of the first Episcopal Church in North Platte on the corner of 4th and Vine which is also the location of the present parish facility, the 140th anniversary of the Charter linking Church of Our Savior with the Diocese of Nebraska, and the 50th anniversary of the Consecration of the present church building following its construction in1964.
Come and join the tour and learn more about the deep history and heritage of our parish!
From Central House to Brownell Hall: “A Most Favorable Opportunity” for Bishop Joseph Cruickshank Talbot and the Episcopal Church in Nebraska
Kansas and Nebraska territories had filled rapidly after passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in mid-1854. Land hungry emigrants and immigrants quickly platted and settled towns along the Missouri River, peopling them with all sorts and conditions of humanity who favored a variety of commercial and cultural interests. Although Methodist and Congregationalist clergy were among the first emigrant wave, the Episcopal Church had no presence in the region. However, in mid-1856, an Omaha woman wrote to Dr. Benjamin I. Haight, editor of the Episcopal Church’s missionary journal, The Spirit of Missions, puzzled as to why no clergyman had come into the territory, noting that “Other Churches have sent Missionaries here.” The Church responded quickly, and in April 1856, the first services for Trinity Church were conducted in Omaha City by Rev. Edward W. Peet from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Des Moines, Iowa. A trio of Episcopal clergy including Bishop Jackson Kemper, Missionary Bishop of Missouri and Indiana, visited the territory shortly thereafter, and in letters to the missionary journal, Bishop Kemper acknowledged the rapidly expanding population. There was, he said, an immediate need for additional clergymen. “Tents are seen in every direction . . . . Already, in some respects, we are too late in the field. Missionaries should be in the Territory, . . .” However, since both Kansas and Nebraska territories remained outside the jurisdiction of any diocese or missionary district, no administrators to orchestrate such an effort existed. Three more years would pass before the Episcopal Church could establish any formal organization on the frontier west of the Missouri River.
At the October 1859 General Convention, held in Richmond, Virginia, delegates created the Diocese of Kansas, as well as two new missionary districts for the rapidly settling frontier. The one of which Nebraska Territory was a part was called the Missionary District of the Northwest. Its bishop was to serve all residents in most of the federally organized frontier north and west of Kansas Territory. Elected to serve as the new district’s Missionary Bishop at the same convention was Rev. Joseph Cruickshank Talbot, rector of Christ Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. Bishop Talbot was consecrated on February 15, 1860. Little more than two months later, on April 24, 1860, the new bishop arrived in the region for the first time, with only two communities, Nebraska City and Omaha City, as suitable places of residence and missionary district administration.
The territory was sparsely settled, with a population of 28,841 people. Only five of the sizable settlements were incorporated, the largest of which was Omaha City. As territorial capital, the town’s economy bustled with government and frontier related businesses, from federal land agents to court justices, from grocers to clothiers, and from hod carriers to wheelwrights, bringing the population in 1860 to 1,883 people. Omaha City lay to the north of the Platte River, a definitive geographic border between north and south regions of the territory due to the difficulty in crossing that watercourse. The South Platte region was dominated by Nebraska City, which lay along a branch of the Oregon and California trails. Nebraska City was a freighting center and home to commercial freighting firms such as Wells Fargo, Ben Holladay, and Russell, Majors, and Waddell. Its economy in 1860 hummed with even more momentum than did that of Omaha, producing a population of 1,922 residents. Both communities offered amenities not found elsewhere on the frontier and were well-connected by transportation networks to the populations served by the missionary bishop. These included Native Americans in Dakota Territory to the north, and frontier settlers in western border areas. Finally, only Omaha City and Nebraska City housed sizable parishes of the Episcopal Church – Trinity in Omaha City, established in 1856, and St. Mary’s in Nebraska City, organized in 1857. Ultimately, the choice of community for residence was not difficult. One month after he arrived, the bishop announced that he would live in Nebraska City, noting that “I could not get a house at Omaha, the capital, but this is quite as easy of access, from all points – indeed, rather more so – and will, I think, continue to be, as it now is, a place of at least equal importance as a business centre.”
The cultural environment of the territory was “wide-open.” Miners from all over the world had flooded into the Far West from the mid-nineteenth century onward. Simultaneously, word of available land in North America brought vast numbers of immigrant European families hoping to farm their way to a better life. The influx of humanity quickly peopled the Far West and Great Plains with mining camps and ethnic enclaves of prospectors and European farmers who spoke a wide variety of languages and maintained unique cultural traditions. The mining camps and their residents were generally regarded as degenerate, while the religious practices of many of the immigrant farmers frightened Easterners and politicians who believed their lack of Protestant Christian values would hinder the advance of American democracy. Roman Catholicism was seen as equally threatening to all Protestants who noted that the “Romists” obeyed first – a Pope; only secondarily did they express any allegiance to the American Constitution.
Revivalist Presbyterian – and anti-Roman Catholic – preacher Lyman Beecher had warned of the need to Christianize the frontier populations as early as the1840s, and it quickly became evident to theologians of all persuasions that schools operated by their denominations’ clergy were an excellent vehicle by which to teach American values and to expand denominational membership. The idea was articulated in a post-Civil War sermon by Congregationalist minister Rev. Joseph P. Thompson. Written in the wake of mass immigration and Constitutional suffrage for Blacks, Rev. Thompson called the act of voting an “educator” that provided “an unlettered immigrant or the slave of yesterday [with] . . . a sense of obligation and personal responsibility, being opposed to rash experiments and revolutionary measures. . . .” But added the cleric, “With free suffrage, ignorance is our first danger, and intelligence our first remedy.” The public demand for schooling was as great as the resolve of missionaries to provide it, and the few Episcopal missionaries in the territory were soon teaching literacy along with spreading the Gospel. By 1860, Episcopal Missionary Rev. Stephen Massoch, a Czech surgeon ordained in England in the 1840s, was operating a school for the children of German immigrants who were then rapidly settling an area along the Missouri River south and east of present-day Nebraska City. By the time of Bishop Talbot’s first visit there in mid-summer 1860, Rev. Massoch had partially constructed “a house of logs for public worship, and for a school room in which to gather and teach the children . . . the principles of the gospel and the Church.” In his report from that time, the Czech priest noted that, “The school, numbering from twenty-five to forty scholars (both boys and girls, young and old) is under my constant personal superintendence. I spent, daily, six hours in that school. . . . Besides different branches of useful knowledge, we train the youth in reading the Bible, and catechising them in our holy religion.” Each family subscribed five dollars toward tuition, but the funds generated were inadequate, and the building was quickly outgrown. At the same time in Dakota Territory to the north, missionary Rev. Melancthon Hoyt dreamt of having a library of about 200 volumes “of a practical character” that he could keep in circulation. He envisioned lending a book to a Plains family, and when he visited again to retrieve the first tome and leave a second, he would have the opportunity to preach the Gospel. Realizing the difficulty in obtaining a library of the 100 volumes he believed were needed to begin such an undertaking, Rev. Hoyt initiated the concept by using books from his own library.
Creating public schools and obtaining the necessary curriculum materials was no less difficult that organizing the parochial ones. Omaha had opened its first school in mid-1855 in the old territorial statehouse at 9th and Farnham streets. But the school had to close when the legislature reconvened. The next effort at a public school came in mid 1860, also conducted in the old statehouse. It too folded within a few months. By early 1861, the demand for education had intensified, but the city had neither a building, nor funds for acquiring curriculum materials. In fact, the public school’s first annual budget in 1860 was $1,903; much of that amount was collected from the fines paid by prostitutes and licensing fees paid by saloons. To increase school revenue, tuition of $3 per quarter per student was assessed. A school census in 1861 showed 571 students and twelve teachers in the district.
The public school idea was far more preferable to many residents than that of denominational schools. Competition with, and disdain for, Roman Catholics had increased locally in 1858 after the Catholic Church announced that it would send a bishop to Omaha. Elated local Catholics quickly lobbied a committee of the Omaha City Council, hoping the council would give to the church twenty-four prime lots for its activities. The Catholic lobbyists assured the Council committee that the city’s generosity would be economically returned “ten-fold,” asserting that the Romanists’ presence in the city would attract more newcomers, thereby improving the city’s commercial viability, and that Catholic schools would enhance Omaha’s academic reputation. The lots were not donated, and skepticism about Catholic motives was evidenced in the views of both bishops Talbot and Clarkson. For this and many secular reasons, Bishop Talbot “kept his eyes peeled” for a site suitable for the operation of an Episcopal school.
Bishop Talbot’s flock was far too scattered to spend much time in his Nebraska City home during his five years in Nebraska Territory. His travels began immediately after his family arrived, and by the end of 1860, the bishop had logged over 3,000 miles of travel! His 1863 missionary journey all the way to San Francisco, lasted nearly seven months. It was the longest trip undertaken by a missionary bishop. In June 1860, Bishop Talbot made his first trip north into the Dakota Territory portion of his district. The road from Nebraska City on which he traveled stayed along the top of the bluffs that banked the west side of the Missouri River, circumventing the swales and swampy lowlands along the river, and crossing the that flowed into the river creeks – such as the Weeping Water – at good crossing points. The road terminated where the Platte River flowed into the Missouri. On the other side of the Platte, the road continued northward, still atop the river banks, passing to the south of the Bellevue Mission and continuing north where it entered Omaha City at about present-day Fourteenth and Pierce streets.
Heading north again from Omaha, Bishop Talbot undoubtedly traveled the “Road from Omaha City to Florence,” which exited Omaha near present day 23rd and Emmet streets. By 1860, that road was passing through another village, now vanished, that had been established in about 1856. That site had been named Saratoga; the land company that organized it was the Sulpher Springs Land Company. In the vicinity of present day 18th and Pratt streets, early residents had discovered several mineral springs. Describing the site in April 1856, The (Omaha) Nebraskian wrote, “The reserve itself seems to have been planned by the hand of art as well as of nature for a healthful and attractive resort.” About the springs, the writer added, “This is now well known to possess the highest virtues, and the water is said by capable judges to be as strongly medicinal, and as agreeable to the taste as that of the famous White Sulphur Spring of Virginia.” In the true form of frontier entrepreneurs, within a few months, a town was laid out just north of Omaha’s northern city limits. A year later, the Nebraskian reported that a new hotel was going up in the town, and plans for the building were “truly on a grand scale; . . . the hotel will be . . . the largest and the most costly one in the Missouri Valley. . . The building will comfortably accommodate from two to three hundred persons. The first floor is to be principally occupied with stores.” Cost of the building was estimated at $100,000!
The resort’s grand opening in August 1857, “was by far the most brilliant party ever given in the Territory. . . .The Cotillon [sic] Band of Council Bluffs discoursed the finest music. . . .The table groaned under all the luxuries of a splendid dinner; equal to the first class Hotels in the East.” The menu included oyster soup, veal pie, fresh vegetables and fruit not readily available on the Great Plains, as well as roast pig, beef, and veal. Claret and port wines were served. What followed was equally as typical of America’s boom and bust frontier economy; within a week of the resort’s opening, the Panic of 1857 swept across the United States. With the blessing of territorial legislatures, local banks had issued their own currencies without adequate financial resources. Saratoga was among the local casualties, along with five territorial banks and frontier related businesses. An estimated one million lots along the Missouri River went on the market as speculators attempted to minimize their losses. Thus when Bishop Talbot traveled the wagon road north in the summer of 1860 (at approximately 22nd and Grand today), standing alone on the prairie along the west side of the road was the Central House, then being operated as a boarding house. (The site today approximated the interchange of the North Freeway.) Giddy at the prospect of establishing “an educational institution, in which we may ultimately train our own missionaries for our own work,“ in October 1860, Bishop Talbot wrote: “A most favorable opportunity now presents itself. For $4,000 I can purchase a house and grounds, with all the necessary outbuildings and conveniences, and situated within thre miles of the State-House at Omaha. . . . I cannot by hope that god will open the way for me to secure it before the opportunity is lost. The Romanists, I learn, are looking toward it with eager eyes.” No doubt they were.
Acquisition could not be easy. No missionary district had its own budget. All operational funds for the districts came from the Board of Missions of the Episcopal Church – a group that relied heavily on donations. Hence, their financial support of the missionary districts was woefully inadequate. Missionary bishops became, of necessity, financial wizards; each had an extensive personal network of potential donors. And upon arrival in a new region, each bishop – also of necessity – had to learn who among his flock and its extended family had the deepest pockets and most support for the needs of the Church. It appears that in the summer of1861, Bishop Talbot turned to territorial lawyer John Irwin Redick to assist him in making the purchase. In July 1861, Redick apparently purchased the site from a man named Frances Delone who had acquired the original patent on the land. Within a few weeks, Redick sold the land to Bishop Talbot for $3,800. But the need for curriculum materials, furnishings, linens, etc. to actually open as a school necessitated two more years of work, and Brownell Hall (named for the then-Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States) did not open until September 17, 1863, under the leadership of Rev. Orasmus C. Dake, then also rector of Trinity Church in Omaha. The first year was financially difficult. The cost of living rose as the America’s Civil War continued, and the products needed to maintain a boarding school were far more costly than had been calculated in the price of tuition. In his 1863 report about the school, Bishop Talbot wrote, “To enable it to enlarge its work . . . , I need the sum of $2000. . . “
In the fall of 1864, to improve the institution’s finances, Bishop Talbot leased the school’s operations to Rev. Samuel Hermann of Connecticut for a period of five years. Rev. Hermann was permitted to utilize the land for farming. Students from that early period remember “plenty of fresh meat. . . butter and eggs.” Over the next four years, Rev. Hermann expanded the curriculum, purchased a library of about 1,000 books, and introduced his young female students to the latest technological innovations – such as electricity. Brownell Hall became the scene of frequent social events. The first class graduated in the spring of 1868.
By 1869, Nebraska had a new bishop, Rt. Rev. Robert Harper Clarkson, and the territory had become a state. With the original lease due to expire, Bishop Clarkson, sought permission to sell the old Saratoga building and its contents, and use the funds to move the school into Omaha. The building’s contents were purchased by Abbot Augustus Lowe of Brooklyn, New York, for $1,000. The building was sold to the City of Omaha, and two lots were secured at 16th and Jones streets, in Omaha. The new facility opened in the fall of 1869.
The years flew by. As the school’s reputation for quality education grew, so did the need for larger facilities. From 16th and Jones, the school moved to 10th and Worthington, and finally to its present location near 60th and Happy Hollow Boulevard. Male students were added in 1952, and Bishop Talbot’s name was added to that of Brownell’s in 1963. However, Brownell Hall was hardly the Church in Nebraska’s only academic effort during the remainder of the nineteenth century. To the list were added St. James in Fremont, Worthington Military Academy in Kearney, Nebraska College and Talbot Hall in Nebraska City, and multiple small schools associated with other Nebraska mission churches. Remarkably, Brownell Hall remains on the Nebraska, and even national, landscape as evidence of an era in which the Protestants’ desire to inculcate democratic values to the nation defied the notion of males-only education, as well as the concept that secular democracy and church could not co-exist in the classroom.
– Prof. Jo L. Beherns
Pray Fervently, Labor Diligently and Give Liberally
The Story of Episcopal Women’s Ministry in Nineteenth Century Nebraska
Jo L Behrens*
“The Christmas Festival for the benefit of the Sabbath School of Trinity Church, . . , was well attended, and in all respects a complete success.” So reported the (Omaha) Nebraska Republicanon December 25, 1863. The festival’s organization and success was a credit primarily due the women of Trinity Church, whose efforts to organize village events, from pie sales and summer picnics to Harvest Festivals and Holiday boutiques, created the nucleus of parish community development. The same story could be told innumerable times and about every denomination and parish across the West during the last half of the nineteenth century, for it was the efforts of frontier women whose community leadership skills created a sense of stability within the often-rowdy frontier towns.
Nebraska Territory had filled rapidly with white settlers after it opened in 1854. As small villages quickly dotted the banks of the Missouri River, town boosters wasted no time in petitioning clergy from churches of every denomination to bring to services to their settlements, thereby assuring investors that their towns would thrive and grow. But the Episcopal Church had been tardy in its appearance – as noted by Bishop Jackson Kemper when he visited Omaha City in mid-1856. Traveling in the territory with Iowa Bishop Henry Lee, and Rev. William N. Irish of St. Joseph, Missouri, Bishop Kemper acknowledged the need for an immediate missionary effort when he arrived in Omaha City. He reported that, “Tents are seen in every direction . . . . Already, in some respects, we are too late in the field. Missionaries should be in the Territory, . . .” Thus, when Missionary Bishop Joseph Crucickshank Talbot arrived in the territory in April 1860, his flock was largely confined to the two existing parishes, one in Nebraska City and one in Omaha; he was assisted by four clergymen. Although Bishop Talbot’s tenure coincided with America’s Civil War years, settlement of the region did not slow. Wagon traffic along the Platte River trails was extensive. Lured by gold and silver strikes in Colorado, Montana, and California, and beckoned by potential commercial success and land, even during the war era, over 100,000 emigrants headed into the West. Many adventurers chose to settle in places along the way West, establishing multiple communities across the territory, each of which represented the opportunity to gather new souls to a mission-minded bishop and his staff. Thus by the time Bishop Talbot left the territory in 1865, there were eight parishes, four of which were self-supporting, and nine clergymen. But among the newly-minted Episcopalians, there was a gender-based division of labor. Most often townsmen constructed the church buildings. However, it was the women who sewed the altar linens, who furnished quarters for the clergyman, and who taught in the grammar or Sabbath School. A woman’s call to serve Christ in His Church fell only within her accepted sphere of influence – family, home, parish, and civic community.
The post-Civil War era brought a period of tremendous growth to Nebraska. Construction of the transcontinental railroad west from Omaha brought thousands of adventurous young men – both American and immigrant – to serve as the necessary surveyors, bridge builders, graders, track layers, lumber cutters, and rolling stock builders. By the railway’s completion in 1869, the state’s pre-war population had been quadrupled. At Annual Council that year, Bishop Robert Harper Clarkson reported sixteen parishes (most with buildings), twenty missions, and twenty-one clergymen to serve nearly 900 communicants in the eastern part of the state. In addition to their pastoral care, the clergy kept all communicant and vital statistics for their flocks; they also kept all financial records related to their missionary efforts. Likewise the clergy were fund raisers for their new congregational buildings, and they organized schools for their often-illiterate, immigrant, potential parishioners. Additionally, the majority of clergymen in the West served multiple missions in several towns, travel among which was often arduous and dangerous. More clergy were needed, but noted the Bishop at the height of the financial recession in 1876, the towns had few resources to pay clergymen, adding “I cannot ask them to come and be starved.” However the burgeoning demand for clergy services also expanded the opportunities for women to serve. Women’s ministries were needed nationwide in urban neighborhoods for sewing classes, soup kitchens, hospitals, and orphanages. After the Civil War, Episcopal women worked with the Freedmen’s Bureau across the South. And on the frontier, their charitable skills were in great demand on Indian reservations. Forced onto, and confined within lands set aside for them, most of America’s natives lived in abject poverty, because although treaty provisions said otherwise, the needs of Native Americans were never accommodated by Congressional budgets. Because Episcopal women often had both the economic means and the time to undertake such volunteer work, some historians credit their efforts in the post-Civil War era with initiation of the later social-gospel movement.
In addition to civic community work, the increasing need for “ministers of care” led to two closely-related religious professions for women: associations of deaconesses and the establishment of sisterhoods. The latter were seen first in England in the 1840s – an outgrowth of the Oxford Movement. Anglican sisterhoods were religious communities in the monastic tradition, often with rules for obedience as well as the wearing of special clothing. In America, sisterhoods seemed suspiciously “Romish,” and where they existed, their mission was related to social service.. Deaconesses generally did not live in a religious community, but in that of a secular city neighborhood or rural Indian reservation, where their roles were decidedly different from that of deacons. While both ministries emphasized service, the male deacon was ordained to assist the priest in every kind of service – from the Mass to baptism; he was also expected to preach when asked to so. The female deaconess was set apart for service in the vein of the “cult of true womenhood.” She was expected to be submissive and obedient to a priest or bishop, just as she would be to her husband.
The model for elevating women to that clerical office originated in the early church; multiple references to females as deacon exist before the sixth century A.D. By that time in the East, women were being ordained as deacon. Although many such women were celibate or widows over the age of forty, some of them had families and husbands with whom the ordinands interacted. Their roles included providing a variety of ministries to women. In the East, where societal gender separation was the norm, the rite of baptism provided a cultural imperative for the use of female clergy in performance of the ritual. When administered to an adult, baptism required the total immersion of a naked body, followed by anointing with oil by the officiant. In the fifth century when the practice of ordaining women as deacons spread into Western Europe, administrative concern about elevating women to clergy status put the subject onto the agenda of multiple church councils, each of which produced a canon to subordinate the status of previously ordained women. At the Council of Orange in 441, for instance, Canon 26 said ofordained female deacons, “let them submit their heads to the benediction . . . that is granted to the laity.” Doing so would demonstrably demote them; women were not to be elevated above the status of loyal lay Christian men. Interestingly, Pope Benedict VIII in the early eleventh century seemed to acknowledge and accept women who had already been ordained in northwest Portugal saying, “we concede and confirm to you and to your successors in perpetuity every episcopal ordination . . . of deacons or deaconesses. . . .” But his position was an anomaly. The demand for ordained female deacons waned as infant baptism became the norm. Additionally, Western culture did not emphasize gender separation as did that of the East where pastoral visitations of ill and secluded women by male clergy were regarded as improper. Thus the same cultural separation of males from females that restricted women’s presence in the Sanctuary also permitted ordination of women as deacons to serve female pastoral needs.
The problem of how best to expand women’s roles in the Church, yet remain within the parameters of societal norms, was compounded by the division of communicants and clergy into two political camps, that of low churchmen and high churchmen. Low churchmen favored an evangelical approach to theological questions – i.e. salvation by faith. They preferred fewer trappings of liturgy (such as altar candles), and services such as Morning Prayer that could be led by a Lay Reader. Those of the high church persuasion, the more favored approach of Nebraska clergy, adhered strongly to the church’s institutional traditions – traditional liturgies like the Eucharist, Sacraments as “the outward and spiritual sign” of God’s grace, and the three traditional levels of ordained ministry in Holy Orders. While administrative dominance by those holding the latter view would seem to undermine the growth of women’s ministries, that tendency was mitigated by America’s rapid population expansion and increasing societal needs which instead boosted clerical opportunities for women. As a result, after the Civil War,multiple informal organizations of deaconesses were established. To define parameters for those organizations’ existence, by 1874 a committee of supportive clergy had begun working to create a canon that would set aside women “of devout character and approved fitness” for sisterhoods and deaconess associations. Introduced first at the 1874 General Convention, it was not approved. But at every subsequent General Convention until 1883, a canon on women’s ministries was proposed and discussed, although no consensus on the canon’s definitive wording was reached. Even te canon’s proponents allowed its complete omission from the 1886 convention. One of the stumbling blocks to the canon’s passage was wording that included the concept of salary for a woman. Related issues included amounts to be paid, where the deaconess should live, and how a pension fund for her old age care could be established. A canon delineating rules for deaconesses finally passed both houses at the 1889 General Convention. It had three amendments: 1)the deaconess must be unmarried; 2)the deaconess must be deemed fit for the role by two priests and twelve lay people; and 3)the deaconess was under full control of her bishop, who could remove or suspend her (following a hearing) if he deemed it prudent to do so.
As Roman Catholicism spread rapidly across the country in mid-century, Episcopal clergymen grew increasing competitive in their quest for new communicants in the West. High churchmen drew a fine line between maintenance of Anglican traditions and what they perceived as the excessive ritualism favored by the “Romists.” Thus the question of ritual had been front and center at the October 1871 General Convention in Baltimore. At the September 1872, Nebraska Annual Council, Bishop Clarkson told his clergy that the General Convention had “deprecated all . . . Romish peurilities [sic] ‘with no uncertain sound’.” In other words, traditional high church practices were highly acceptable; Roman Catholic additions to tradition, which Bishop Clarkson called “shams and baubles,” were not. The 1871 General Convention had also formally organized the Women’s Auxiliary to the Board of Missions. Women’s groups were formally recognized as the fund raising arm of the Foreign and Domestic Missionary Society, but the auxiliary was also charged with encouraging female vocations in the Church. At the 1872 Annual Council, Bishop Clarkson applauded the General Convention’s actions noting that there existed ample need for women to “devote themselves to the Church’s work of ministering to the sick, guiding the young, instructing the ignorant, [and] cheering the desolate. . . .” But he added, “My own judgement and preference in this line of church work, would . . . be for an Order of Deaconesses, set apart by our own authority, . . . belonging to the Diocese and responsible to its laws and rules, than to an order of sisters belonging to some outside sisterhood, under control of some foreign authority and pledged to some (to us) unknown vow, and perhaps attached to some unusual ritual.”
The most logical reason for Bishop Clarkson to see the need for a deaconess was the work being undertaken by the diocese in the Ladies Hospital, originally conceived as an ecumenical venture by the women of Omaha in January 1869. In June of that year, the association had received a twenty-one year lease from the City of Omaha for “all that portion of the tract or parcel of land lying west of block three hundred and forty-four,” a very small block of land in the original plat of Omaha at approximately Twenty-third and Webster streets along the city’s western edge. And although a building with six rooms was constructed on the site, the women’s Good Samaritan Hospital was not well-known enough to even appear in the annual city directories. In October 1870, the Ladies Hospital Association asked the Diocese of Nebraska to take control of the hospital; the diocese under Bishop Clarkson accepted the resolution drafted by the women of the Good Samaritan Hospital, who simultaneously elected Bishop Clarkson as a Trustee of the facility. It appears that, from its inception, the hospital had been in direct competition with what the women referred to as “a large and well organized Hospital . . . established by the Romanists.” The Roman Catholic Sisters of Mercy in charge of the hospital (eventually called St. Joseph’s) were undoubtedly the “sisterhood” to which Bishop Clarkson referred in his September 1872 suggestion to initiate an Order of Deaconesses.
The most logical reason for the Ladies Hospital Association to seek leadership from the diocese was the person of Meloria McPherson Clarkson, wife of the Bishop. During the Clarksons’ tenure at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Chicago, the women of the parish – known affectionately as “Women of Israel” for their benevolent activities in the city – had established a soup kitchen, a hospital, raised funds for orphans, and organized the Chicago Northwestern Sanitary Fair to raise money to support sick and wounded Union soldiers during the Civil War. Mrs. Clarkson brought her leadership skills to Omaha where she quickly established her reputation for leadership in women’s volunteer work in Trinity Parish and in the City of Omaha. Over the next two years, donations for the hospital were collected from the Trinity congregation, subscribing members (a “friends” organization) paid monthly dues of one dollar, and fees were collected from those patients who could pay; the funds were used to acquire additional beds and linens, and to make building repairs. In October 1873, the Bishop established a committee (of three men) to determine the best course of action by the diocese toward the hospital. The committee recommended “a Deaconess . . . skilled to some extent in medicine, and possessing experience as a nurse, who should reside in the Hospital, and take full charge of its internal management, under the Bishop.” The individual called to fill that role was Sister Mary Hayden.
Sister Mary had no official training for her role, although by the early 1870s, there were multiple schools and programs offering training courses to enhance women’s parish church and missionary work. Mary Ellen Hayden was already a longtime resident of the city when in June 1873, her name first appears as a baptismal witness in the records of Trinity Parish; thereafter she was a frequent witness for baptisms. On Thursday evening, April 23, 1873, St. Mark’s Day, Mary Ellen Hayden was admitted into the Diocese of Nebraska as Deaconess according to a ceremony used in the Diocese of Long Island – “simple, solemn, and beautifully appropriate.” The sermon was preached by Missionary Bishop William Hobart Hare of the Missionary District of the Niobrara. Bishop Clarkson commented that Sister Mary had been “consecrated to a sacred work among the poor, has been laboriously employed under the direction of the Chapter in the Cathedral city,” and that “many instances are personally known to us where permanent blessing has followed her foot-steps.” At the quarterly meeting held on Tuesday, April 28, Sister Mary presented her first report as Deaconess. It is perhaps significant to note however, that in the formal record of the Chapter meeting on April 28, there is no mention of either the admission of Sister Mary as Deaconess, or of her first report in that position. The latter information was only recorded in The Omaha Daily Herald.
Over the next decade, while the work of the deaconess was extensive, the records of her work were not. In 1875 Bishop Clarkson called her “self-denying” and “a most effective help to the clergy.” In April 1877, Sister Mary reported making 192 pastoral visits during the preceding quarter, and over 900 in the year ending April 25. In 1876, Deaconess Sister Dora Holbrook, a nurse by training, was added to the diocesan clergy roster, taking over management of the hospital, still at the Webster Street location. However, the building burned in 1877, temporarily terminating diocesan efforts to minister to Omaha’s less fortunate population, altough Sister Dora continued to live in Omaha serving elsewhere as a nurse. Meanwhile, Sister Mary Hayden continued to serve the Trinity parish community, although no specific data about her activities exits. Late in 1881, a diocesan hospital facility reopened as the Child’s Hospital in a rented house (the residence of Sister Mary Hayden) on lots to the south of the Cathedral along Dodge Street. Sister Sarah Mattice, trained at the Bishop (Alonzo) Potter Memorial House in Philadelphia, arrived in Omaha to serve as its administrator. The latter school had been founded in 1867 by William Welsh, Philadelphia philanthropist and leader in the Episcopal Church’s missionary work with Native Americans. By 1883, a new hospital building was under construction on the lots with funding from a Chicago parishioner friend of Bishop Clarkson. Sister Sarah continued to manage the facility, while Sister Mary continued to serve in the parish community. The hospital was dedicated on December 13, 1883, as a free institution with a clinic for outpatient care. Parents unable to care for their children due to illness would be able to bring them to the Child’s Hospital for care until the parents were well enough to care for them at home. However, “no contagious or infectious diseases [were to be] be treated at the hospital.” Since many parents initially could not bear to leave their children when they were sick, the hospital also admitted adults. Eventually called Clarkson Hospital, the Dodge Street building was demolished in 1932.
While it would appear that the diocese had thoroughly accepted the idea of women’s ministries, in reality their roles in the Church were still extremely fragile and subject to change. On March 10, 1884, Bishop Robert Harper Clarkson died most unexpectedly. The selection of a new bishop was exceedingly difficult for Nebraska clergy. They could not reach a consensus on their choice of a candidate, and the multiple voting sessions were tediously protracted. Late in the year, Rev. George Worthington of St John’s Episcopal Church in Detroit accepted his second call to lead the diocese. But Bishop Worthington was a high churchman with a narrower view of women’s roles. After his early 1885 consecration, there were no deaconesses in the Diocese of Nebraska; the hospital was managed by Meloria Clarkson with a “Matron in charge” to oversee daily operations. Notably, Bishop Worthington made no mention of the passage of the 1889 General Convention’s canon on women’s ministries at his next Annual Council. He was however, outspoken about how laity should support parish and diocesan community. To better utilize the “talents of every person in” his flock, he encouraged men to participate in parish activities, organizing the Brotherhood of St. Andrew. For spreading the Church into remote places, he sought the service of licensed Lay Readers. And for women’s participation, he touted the Women’s Auxiliary. While women’s efforts in missionary fundraising were welcomed and encouraged, their calls to ministry were not.
Almost as interesting as the diocesan support of work by a deaconess was the biography of Sister Mary Hayden. Born Mary Ellen Yates in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, in 1834, Sister Mary was the oldest of eight children in the family that included Henry Whitfield Yates, Omaha banker, member of Trinity parish, and diocesan treasurer. In 1855, Mary Ellen had married Bernard Lafayette Alvey Hayden, also of St. Mary’s County. The couple had four children, the youngest of whom was born in 1864, shortly before Bernard Hayden’s death. The cause of his death remains unclear, although he was not a Union soldier. In 1865, Mary and her young family joined the siblings and parents of Henry Whitfield Yates in emigrating to Omaha from Washington, D.C. where the elder Yates and the family’s younger children had resided since 1860. When Mary Hayden’s boys (there were two) reached their teen years, Uncle Henry W. Yates helped them secure jobs with the First National Bank where Henry was then head teller. The boys each worked his way up the banking ladder; the oldest, Kent K. Hayden ultimately moved to Lincoln to head the Nebraska State Bank. Stuart B. Hayden became bookkeeper and acting manager of the White Lead Works. Jennie L, Mary’s youngest child, resided with her mother. After termination of the deaconess plan in 1885, both Mary Ellen Hayden and daughter Jennie left Omaha, disappearing from city records after 1887. What happened to either of remains unclear, although neither died nor is buried in Omaha. As for Sister Sarah J. Mattice, after her role as hospital deaconess ended, she remained in Omaha for several years, functioning professionally as a druggist.
Although the deaconess experiment lasted little more than a decade in Nebraska, schools and training programs continued to produce women trained in pastoral fields well into the twentieth century. By then, it had become apparent that hospital and other institutional administrators also needed financial and administrative training, courses not provided in the deaconess programs. At that point, the women trained as deaconesses moved into missionary roles. Nonetheless, the service of deaconesses in the Diocese of Nebraska served to introduce locally the concept of a woman’s different call to ministry, as well as to further promote women as professionals in their careers of choice.
*Jo L. Behrens is the volunteer archivist for the Diocese of Nebraska. A member of Trinity Cathedral, she grew up at St. Stephen’s in Grand Island; she and her husband Bob have two wonderful, grown sons, and two spectacular grandsons. In 2008, she began organizing all the assorted papers, correspondence, registers, and photographs that had been stored for many years in multiple places and in a wide variety of ways. Additionally, she has collected other pertinent materials for the archive – such as books, articles, and digitized journals – when they are located. She has taught in the History Department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha since 1992, where she also coordinates the department’s Dual Enrollment Program that allows qualified high school teachers in the Omaha metro to offer UNO credit for one of five approved history courses. Her articles about local, frontier, and Native American history have appeared in Nebraska History, South Dakota History,Chronicles of Oklahoma, and Essays and Monographs in Colorado History. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org