A woman performing certain ecclesiastical functions in the early Church. The date of formal institution is uncertain. New Testament references may or may not imply official status. Deaconesses are later confused with widows. In the 4th and 5th centuries their standing was recognized with an ordination ritual of laying on of hands. Their precise duties are obscurely known. Early functions consisted in charitable offices towards the poor, and in instruction and baptism of catechumens. Later they took part in sanctuary rites. Presumptuous abuse of power in the East was repressed. The West was reluctant to accept deaconesses as an institution. In concord with the Church sentiment as a body, the Council of Orange, 441, forbade their ordination. By the 12th century they had disappeared, though the title was borne by certain nuns. The only existing resemblance to ordination in the West is the bishop‘s delivery of stole and maniple to Carthusian nuns at profession.

The Lutheran preacher Fliedner, c.1836, instituted an order of Protestant deaconesses at Kaiserswerth, Germany, for tending the sick and poor, instruction, etc. The movement spread to England and to the United States where community life is not obligatory. In the Anglican, Protestant Episcopal, and Methodist churches of America deaconesses are solemnly admitted by the laying on of hands.

Additional Information

MLA Citation

  • “deaconess”. New Catholic Dictionary. CatholicSaints.Info. 25 July 2012. Web. 9 August 2020. <>