Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Deaconess life in Germany


I have been for some years past interested in the work of the Sisters of Charity, in connection with the Church of Rome, and admired their zeal and activity, their devotion to the poor and sick, their unflagging patience, and self-denying exertions under all circumstances. I could not but regret that so much that was really good and useful had died out of the churches, calling themselves Reformed. But I was at that time ignorant of the order of Deaconesses, now so widely diffused through Germany, and indeed through almost every country of the Continent.

These Deaconesses consider that they belong to the primitive arrangements of the early church, and date their commencement from the apostolic age. Very soon, however, the state of war and disturbance in the Western Empire prevented women from exercising any duty, even of charity, without the protection of closed doors and walls; so the Deaconesses became cloistered sisters, and their distinctive characteristics were lost.

An attempt was made at the Reformation to revive the order of Deaconesses; but again the wars in Germany, and the lawless state of society, made it impossible. It was only thirty years ago that Professor Fliedner drew together at Kaiserwerth a few women for charitable works; and from this small beginning revived this most useful order, which from such an insignificant commencement has now spread itself all over Europe.

My first acquaintance with the practical life of the Deaconesses was in the autumn of 1859, when I passed a short time in one of their houses in the Grand Duchy of Baden. Their little establishment was not then of very long standing, but it had passed through the infancy of its existence, and was at that time in full vigour and great activity. The house stands outside the town of K——, in a garden, so as to secure fresh air for the sick, and greater liberty for the sisters. It was then quite new, and every arrangement for the comfort of the patients had been most carefully attended to.

The elevation of the Deaconess House is not very tasteful, but the outward impression is effaced on opening the door, the inside view presents an aspect of such order, cleanliness, and comfort. A peaceful atmosphere pervades the whole house, and seems to impress itself not only upon the inhabitants but on all who enter it. Its internal arrangements resemble much those in all conventual houses of charity among the Roman Catholics; but neither mystery nor concealment exists among the Deaconesses: all is fair and open, well fitted to stand the test of daylight and inspection.

On one side of the entrance is the Sister Superior’s room, a very neat apartment, where visitors are received, and where the meetings of their committee to settle the financial affairs of the establishment are held. Opposite to this room is the refectory, or common room, where the sisters sit and work if they are not otherwise occupied, and where meals are served. It is a long, large room, with a bay window at one end; according to our ideas very badly furnished. There is no carpet on the floor: a long table runs down the middle, and there are a few others of various sizes in the windows; the Sister Superior’s writing desk, and the necessary number of chairs, complete the furniture. The first impression on entering the room is admiration of its delicate and, if one may use the expression, its tasteful neatness. One adornment it does possess: every ray of the sun seems to fall into it, and gives it a perpetual warmth and brightness. At the time of my visit there were upwards of twenty sisters in the establishment, but there were barely half that number at home.

The great object of the sisterhood is to train and provide nurses for the sick of all classes, and they are equally ready to attend to the poor as to the rich. The Superior sends her best-trained sisters into other hospitals or families as they may be required, and educates the younger probationers, in the mother house, under her own eye, which necessitates constant supervision and activity. The younger sisters at that time belonged almost exclusively to the peasant class, or the position held in society by small tradesmen’s families and domestic servants. They were all very active, cheerful, and anxious to be of use. They had entered upon this life from serious motives and after much consideration, and with an earnest desire to do good. There are no worldly inducements to attract them; no exalted display of wonderful self-denial or extraordinary austerity, which has a strange attraction to some natures; the life is completely unobtrusive in its simplicity, so that even the enthusiastic and overstrained feeling of being set apart in some special way does not exist among them, as they are bound by no vows, merely promising strict obedience to the rules of the house. If the life does not suit any individual, or if family reasons make it a more manifest duty that any one of the members should return to her own home, no objection is made.

The dress worn by the sisters adds much to the appearance of refinement, as it prevents all display of bad taste, and from its extreme neatness is very pleasing. Economy being one of the necessities of the institution, nothing is spent on the toilette which can be foregone, though all attention is given to neatness. Their dress is arranged for convenience; for work in the house they wear a dark-coloured cotton gown, made quite plainly, with a round cape, the sleeves close at the wrists, and a clean linen collar: the sisters in the sick-room have long white aprons with bibs and large pockets. The others wear striped blue and white cotton, made in the same fashion, and close-fitting little caps trimmed round the face with narrow lace. The Deaconesses wear caps differently cut from the Probationers, the former having a curtain or frill at the back, and broader strings. The dress for Sunday and going out is black stuff; a black cloak and very plain black bonnet complete the costume.

The unsophisticated ideas of these young women were amusing. A stranger, above all a foreigner, coming among them, excited them much. England was a long distance off, and they were as curious to learn about its inhabitants as we should be about the moon; above all, that in a Christian country there should be no Deaconesses, seemed to them most extraordinary. “But, now that you have seen us, you will persuade the Englishwomen to lose no time in beginning,” they used constantly to say to me. “Sister Caroline will send some of us to help you to begin. You will easily find young women anxious to assist in such a good work.”

The Sister Superior during my visit was Sister Caroline. She was a well-educated woman, clever and energetic, with a calm, determined manner, which tended much to keep the younger sisters in order. She was an excellent nurse, and had acquired a small amount of medical knowledge—enough, as she said, to feel how ignorant she was, which is a great step, and one not attained by many nurses. She lamented much her want of knowledge of any language but her own, as they often had foreigners to visit the establishment, and even patients from other countries. Doubtless the mixing of various classes adds greatly to the vigour of any institution—a principle well understood and acted on by the Jesuits.

The house surrounds a quadrangle; the wards are upstairs, and open on to a corridor which runs round the building, thus affording means for constant ventilation. Half of the square is for men, half for women. The wards are large and airy, and can contain each ten beds. Adjoining each ward is a sister’s sleeping-room, so that the sister in attendance on the ward may have a little rest without leaving her patients. On each side of the square is a small kitchen, and a laboratory containing bandages, lint, medicines, and all the needful appliances, all carefully and methodically arranged, so that no time may be wasted in looking for what is required. Every day the sisters in charge of the different wards receive what they may require from the general store. The order and arrangement of the medical store-room rival that of a chemist’s shop.

As the Deaconesses’ Hospital is chiefly intended as a training-school for the sisters, there is a small amount of form requisite for admittance. Each patient must come provided with certain certificates of worthiness and general good behaviour, and pay one florin a week, which includes all charges. This is done purposely, as the town hospital, managed also by the sisters, receives indiscriminately all who require assistance. Notwithstanding, many poor persons are received, and attended with the greatest care, who have only their thanks and heartfelt blessings to bestow in return.

I was placed in the men’s department under the orders of Sister Joanna, an active, lively little woman. The men under her care were mostly working artisans—young men making the tour, necessitated by the laws of trades in Germany—the Wanderburschen as they are called, who, far from home and friends, are too thankful to avail themselves of such an institution. The greater proportion of the patients were shoemakers, whose ailments were chiefly attacks on the chest. In illness the character of each individual comes out undisguised, and it was curious to observe the different temperaments. There was the cheerful and merry patient, easily satisfied, always obliged, and making jokes good, bad, and indifferent on all subjects. The bed, the usual subject of discontent, is, in his case, always right. Such a patient is of immense benefit in a ward, and his spirits enliven the rest of the small community. The merry patient, in this instance, was a carpenter, recovering from a rheumatic fever: he was a fine-tempered creature, anxious to save the sisters any unnecessary trouble. He had learned a few words of French, which he constantly addressed to me, as, being a stranger, he concluded it must be my native tongue. Regularly every morning his “Pon jour, Mamselle, vous êtes pien ce matin?” elicited the admiration of his comrades, and even the Sister Joanna treated him with increased deference on account of his acquirements.

Many of the patients were not such pleasant subjects. A poor shoemaker, of a morose turn of mind, not improved by a severe illness of two months, was never satisfied or contented; he received all attention in surly silence, or with a discontented growl: his bed was never comfortable, in spite of all efforts to shake it up; the patient sister had to make and re-make this vexatious bed many times, before the exacting Hans would be satisfied, and then he would turn in, too sulky even to thank her for her trouble.

Early hours are considered beneficial for the community. By half-past five o’clock the sister is astir in the wards, ventilating it and attending to the comforts of her patients; the sisters then have breakfast, which always includes coffee and milk-rolls, known as milk-bread in Germany. After this the sister in each ward reads a short meditation and prayer. Then she begins the work of getting all in order preparatory to the doctor’s visit; making the beds, &c. &c. All is generally in good order by ten o’clock, when the medical visit is expected. The Sister Superior accompanies the doctor, and writes down his directions for each patient, which are then given to the sisters of the different wards. Great care is taken to prevent confusion, the Sister Superior keeping all the directions in a ledger, and inquiring in the evening if they have been properly carried out.

The dinner-hour is twelve o’clock, and in the well-kept, clean kitchen, the Sister Superior appears ready to cut and apportion the meat for the different wards, and the sisters with their trays stand ready to carry it up-stairs.

The food is plain and well cooked; great care is taken where attention to diet is ordered; everything by being done regularly is done quickly, and it is astonishing with what rapidity the many dinners are sent up-stairs and distributed. The sisters then dine together, if the cases of illness are not very imminent; the patients are left alone, but there is a bell in the room which quickly summons the attendant in case of emergency. The dinner for the sisters is simple; the best of everything being reserved for the sick.

The usual soup for the sisters is a vegetable soup, into the composition of which no meat has entered. The favourite soup is composed of rolls rebaked put into water, with a certain amount of sour cream stirred into it before it boils. Though this may not sound well, it is, nevertheless, very good, especially if those who eat it are hungry. The diet, though homely and apparently meagre, is much what the sisters are used to in their own homes, and they thrive upon it. The simplicity is not intended as a mortification of the flesh; but only because the sisters do not think needless indulgences desirable; and they prefer, by careful economy on their own account, to have more means at their command for assisting those who require their help. In accordance with the old rules in religious houses, silence is enjoined during dinner, and a short meditation and prayer is read after it is finished. The sisters then visit their patients, and if all is going well, and they can leave them, they take a short turn in the garden, in which their beloved vegetables and a pet pig are no small attractions. A few flowers are gathered to please their patients, and to offer to the convalescents, who sit about under the trees; and the lively laugh when the sisters pass, or enter into conversation, shows that many a little repartee and joke slip behind the gates of the Deaconess House, and that a little harmless fun is not considered sinful.

The afternoon is varied by a four-o’clock refection of coffee; and, on festive occasions, a peculiar white bread, which is much approved of by all who taste it. A considerable amount of needlework is done by the sisters; all their own raiment is made in the mother house, and a constant supply is always kept ready for their poorer patients, who often come very badly provided.

By half-past seven o’clock, the sick have had their supper, and the wards are arranged for the night. The sisters then have their last meal, and all those who are not necessarily engaged in nursing bad cases sit and work for an hour, the Sister Superior again reading something aloud for their improvement. Prayers conclude the day, and soon after nine o’clock all is quiet, and most of the little community fast asleep. If watching is required, the night is divided into two watches, one sister taking charge until one hour after midnight, when she is relieved, and is thus able to resume her usual occupations during the day, without suffering from fatigue.

Sunday is the great day in the Deaconess House. After two o’clock not only the friends and relations of the patients, but all who are in any way interested in the little Institution are welcome to come as visitors; and those who come display much sympathy in the occupations and proceedings of the sisters. The Deaconess House attracts the best feelings of all classes, from the Grand Duchess to the peasant.

At the time of which I speak, Sister Mina, who had nursed one of the Grand Ducal family, was dying of consumption, and countless were the little attentions paid to her case by the Grand Duchess, who almost daily sent fruit and various delicacies to the sufferer. The poorer visitors gave also of their small means. Often, on opening the door, a peasant-woman, dressed in her peculiar costume, would enter, weary and wayworn, and yet determined not to return home without bringing her present of plums, apples, or sometimes a loaf of home-made bread, and have a little talk over all her own family history, her troubles and her joys, to which most affectionate and ready ear was always lent by the sisters. While I was there one poor old lady brought a letter from her son, who had been nursed at the hospital, and was, at the time I speak of, a missionary in America. This was the first letter received by her since he left home, and the first visit which the precious document paid was to the Deaconess House.

The sisters are much consulted by the poorer women on household matters, as they are acknowledged to be thoroughly practical in all affairs relating to domestic economy. They retain a great hold over their patients, who return whenever they have an opportunity to thank them for all their care.

In the House there are smaller rooms for patients of a superior class; these are constantly occupied; clerks in government offices often take advantage of this accommodation, and even young officers have been nursed in the Deaconess House. The sum paid in these cases is larger than what is paid in the wards, but it is very moderate.

The affectionate regard of these sisters for the sick, is only rivalled by their continued interest in the departed.

The expression—“our dear dead”—is constantly to be heard. On the occasion of a death in the little establishment, I spoke of it with sorrow and regret. Sister Caroline listened and then said quietly:

“It is a thing to rejoice over, not to grieve at; he is gone to his rest.”

The sisters strive as much as possible to banish all gloom in connection with death and burial; the chapel is hung with flowers, as if for some happy ceremony.

The Superiors in the different houses are elected by the majority of votes, and retain their position for four years. This system has a very beneficial effect, as it effectually checks any undue exercise of power, which is so apt to spring up in conventual systems—absolute government—where such checks are unknown.

A Sister Superior, after her election, pays a lengthened visit to some Deaconess House in the neighbourhood for the purpose of acquiring information and experience for her new duties; and in this way a community of interests is kept up, and a friendly interchange of ideas, which is very beneficial to the whole community.

There were other visitors at times during my stay; for instance, the Sisters’ Hospital was visited by a meeting of medical men, who were making a tour of inspection through the hospitals, and who paid many compliments to the arrangements of the place. One of them, a Russian gentleman, who had served in the army of his country against the English at Bomarsund, was so much struck with what he saw of the Deaconesses and their work, that I heard him express a hope of being able to establish similar houses in Russia.

My short visit to the Institution made me most desirous to see this system adopted in our own country. We have many excellent and energetic women who require a more extensive sphere of action than is afforded to them in a small family circle, and yet whose sensitive natures and retiring dispositions prevent them from bringing themselves forward in individual action: their various characters would find suitable work and constant occupation in an establishment of this kind, free from useless austerities and unfettered by oppressive observances.