Thursday, February 14, 2013

Yesterday's Saint

What with our raging case of conclave fever (we're under medical treatment), we forgot to mention somebody yesterday -- somebody important, and too easily overlooked.  Her name is Gertrud Reichardt, and she was the first modern deaconess.

In 1836, a young Lutheran pastor named Theodor Fliedner, with his wife Friederike, opened the first "deaconess-house" in Kaiserswerth, thus beginning a movement that would sweep through the Protestant world.  Deaconesses, women consecrated to a life of Christian service, would quickly become a significant part of the Lutheran, Anglican and Methodist churches.  They cared for orphans and the poor, they nursed the sick and dying.  When Florence Nightingale was preparing to leave for the Crimea, she stopped in Kaiserswerth for actual training.  We have long argued that these deaconesses helped to create the modern professions of medical nursing and social work.

Gertrud Reichardt, then 48 years old, was the first woman to answer Fliedner's appeal.  Lavinia Dock and M. Adelaide Nutting tell the story in their 1907 History of Nursing:
Gertrude Reichardt, the first Kaiserswerth deaconess, was the daughter and the sister of a physician. She was born in Ruhrort in 1788 and was already a woman of mature years and of much practical experience as a nurse. In her father's home she had been accustomed to assist him with dressings and operations, and during the War of Freedom [i.e., the 1812-14 battle against French occupation] she had been his constant helper. When her brother became a physician she had gained further large experience in the care of the sick among his patients.  
She was admirably fitted for the work of the new hospital, and the Fliedners had long known of her and for a time had tried in vain to persuade her to take up the new and experimental post of deaconess. Finally, in the early autumn they had induced her to come and see the new hospital. It looked very bare and poor and she could not decide to remain; was, in fact, about to return home when a large bundle was brought in by post, which contained a quantity of new bed-linen, clothing, and ward fittings. This simple occurrence was regarded by her as a providential sign, and she promised to come in October. Two young women promised to come and assist, though not willing to become deaconesses. Gertrude remained in the service until 1855 when she withdrew to the House of Evening Rest (Feierabend Haus) for the old Sisters at the age of sixty-eight years.

On 13 February 1869, she entered the Church Triumphant.  (You can read other brief bios in English here and in German here.)

Let's be frank:  Without her combination of medical experience and devotion to God, Kaiserswerth would never have gotten off the ground.  Not only would the deaconess movement have been yet another forgotten Romantic-era flop, but it is quite possible that much of what it inspired -- nursing, social work, and public health -- would have developed very differently.  Many people owe a debt to Sister Reichardt who have never even heard her name.

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