Proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ

Episcopal Women’s Ministry in 19th Century Nebraska

Pray Fervently, Labor Diligently and Give Liberally

Deaconess Mary Hayden

Deaconess Mary Hayden

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.

Children's Hospital ca. 1910

Children’s Hospital ca. 1910

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 HistorySouth Dakota History,Chronicles of Oklahoma, and Essays and Monographs in Colorado History.  Contact her at

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