Mennonite Nuns

Did you know there were Mennonite nuns? Seems unlikely doesn’t it, since Anabaptists really tried to distance themselves from the Catholic Church. But at the turn of the century there was an order of Mennonite women who wore ‘habits’ and dedicated themselves to serving others. They were called deaconesses. Many years ago on a visit to Newton, Kansas I interviewed one of only five remaining deaconesses, Theodosia Harms, who just happened to be my grandfather’s cousin. 

Deaconesses with babies at the Bethel Hospital 1915 – photo Mennonite Church Archives

The deaconess movement actually began in Germany in the 1830s when young Mennonite women went to live in specially built homes near hospitals and made a commitment to spend their lives caring for the sick. The movement spread worldwide and at one point there were more than a hundred of these deaconess homes. Some 40,000 women served as deaconesses in the 1800 and 1900’s. 

My grandfather’s cousin Theodosia Harms, shown here when she first became a Mennonite sister, went to live in the deaconess house in Newton, Kansas in 1922 and train as a nurse at Bethel College. She served as a nurse in the Newton Hospital eventually becoming the chief of the nursing staff and instructor of nursing students. She also lived and worked in Paraguay for two years as a missionary nurse. For a time she was sent to Mountain Lake Minnesota to start a hospital there. 

Deaconesses at Bethel Hospital- Newton Kansas 1911- Photo from Chicago Community Mennonite Church

I spent an afternoon visiting with her in 1989. Although retired, she still wore her habit, a plain dark blue dress with a simple white collar and neatly mended stockings. She remembered my grandfather and told me stories about him as well many interesting anecdotes about her own brothers and sisters, her patients and the good times she had with her sister deaconesses. I heard about the goose who once attacked her brother, the patient who swore at her and threw a Bible at her, and the Christmas gifts she’d received from her nursing sisters. She told me she had been a mischevious  ‘troublemaker’ who liked to have fun with her patients and the doctors. 

If you want to read the full story of my time with Theodosia and learn more about the Mennonite nuns you can click on this Mennonite Mirror link and go to page 6 and 7 of the issue. 

 Sister Theodora died in 1991, just a year and a half after I interviewed her and is buried in the Greenwood Cemetery in Newton, Kansas. 


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