St. Elisabeth Fedde
by Kelly-Ray Meritt
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from LF Summer 2013
Elisabeth Fedde’s life falls neatly into distinct parts, each with its own geography and a distinct identity, except for an awkward transitional period on her return to Norway from the United States, a sort of intermezzo before the Fourth Act.
In the First Act (1850–1872), the farm girl from Flekkefjord suffered the loss of her parents and found herself in Kristiana, twelve kilometers north of Oslo, where she sup- ported herself by domestic service in the Siqveland household. There she encountered “Lutheran nuns” from the recently established Norwegian deaconess motherhouse and recoiled from the severity of their dress and habits. The young Elisabeth was surprised to hear a fellow servant in the household expressing regret that she was too old to enter the deaconess sisterhood. Elisabeth then casually remarked to Fru (Mrs.) Siqveland that she might like to become a deaconess herself; in turn, the lady of the house- hold encouraged her to complete the application process and guided her to the parish pastor, who persuaded her to act promptly.
Act Two (1873–1883) began with the young woman crossing the threshold of Lovisenberg Deaconess Institute and becoming Søster Elisabeth. The training was both rigorous and devout, providing a surrogate family that included Mother Katinka Guldberg and a growing community of sisters to support and challenge Elisabeth. Gaining the confidence of the deaconess community through her empathy with patients and quick grasp of the principles of nursing, Sister Elizabeth was soon put in charge of Ward H, sent out on a number of private duty assignments, and then assigned to the State Hospital at Kristiania, where “nurses” were the least paid, least educated, and often frankly abused employees. She mastered the ability to demand support from her employers for nursing and for nurses as professionals. Her success in organizing the State Dispensary led to her assignment to reform the infirmary at Tromsø, north of the Arctic Circle, where she served for four years before returning to the motherhouse.
Act Three (1883–1895) opens with a letter arriving on Christmas Day, which happened also to be her thirty-second birthday, from her brother-in-law in Brooklyn, imploring her to come to the United States to assist the Norwegian immigrants who were experiencing the worst misfortunes of immigration. The severe decision of the governing board of the Norwegian motherhouse not to grant her direct sponsorship or support, since the invitation to Brooklyn had come to her personally rather than through them, nearly broke her resolve. But all the same Mother Katinka encouraged Sister Elisabeth to answer the call to serve her Lord Jesus, with whatever sponsorship or support he might provide. As a deaconess on her own in the United States, Sister Elisabeth promptly managed to establish a Voluntary Relief Society for the Poor and Sick among the Norwegians in New York and Brooklyn within a month of her arrival and in due course established both the Norwegian Lutheran Deaconesses’ Home and Hospital in Brooklyn and the Lutheran Deaconess Home and Hospital in Minneapolis.
When Sister Elisabeth left New York twelve years later in 1895, her intention was to rest and regain her health in Norway and then (perhaps) return to her American labors—this is the intermezzo. She was received back into her old role as a Norwegian deaconess and served in various capacities, as her wavering health allowed, under the auspices of her old motherhouse at Kristiania.
The Final Act of her story begins in 1898, when she resigned the diaconate in order to marry Ole A. P. Slettebø, her childhood sweetheart, who had waited for her throughout her twenty-seven years in the diaconate. They lived at his family’s farm in Egersund, also in the Flekkefjord. As Fru Slettebø, she made a final trip back to the United States to celebrate the growth of her work there, but she continued to be called, on both sides of the ocean, Søster Elisabeth. Upon her return to Norway, she presented a commemorative silver bowl, inscribed to her from the Brooklyn hospital, to her beloved husband, identifying him as the chief support of her life’s work. She died in 1921, three years before he did.
The importance of the Lutheran deaconess movement in the development of the modern nursing profession can scarcely be overestimated. In the nineteenth century it would not have been taken for granted that those who watched by the beds of the sick should also have been concerned with understanding the details of diagnosis and treatment, with clean linens and infection control, with wholesome nourishment, or with gentle care that respected the dignity of the patient. In 1850, the year of Elisabeth Fedde’s birth, Florence Nightingale visited the German pastor Theodor Fliedner’s deaconess motherhouse in Kaiserwerth, only fourteen years after its founding, and found it life-changing. She stayed on for four months of medical training, as recorded in her first publication, The Institution of Kaiserwerth on the Rhine, for the Practical Training of Deaconesses, etc., which came out the following year. Sixteen years later, Katinka Guldburg, regarded as the first professional nurse in Norway, traveled to Kaiserwerth for training before she founded the Norwegian deaconess motherhouse in Kristiania in 1868. A mere five years later, as Mother Katinka, she welcomed Sister Elisabeth into the deaconess community.
If miracles of healing were the prime factor in determining the sanctity of those whose faith the church commemorates, nurses would surely fill up the calendar, especially those who sought to integrate the healing of the body with healing of the soul and its relationships. Beyond that core mission, however, Sister Elisabeth exemplifies several other facets of sanctified life within her calling, all the more reason to thank God for the grace given her.
Sister Elisabeth possessed a holy boldness, tempered with charming grace and a humility that claimed nothing for herself but much for those she served. To the parsimonious director of the State Hospital at Kristiania who bullied his staff regarding the replacement of broken equipment, demanding his permission in person, she retorted, “If the Director thinks there is any satisfaction to come here, he is wrong. But as long as it is the necessary procedure here, I shall come here even if it is ten times a day.” When the sponsors of the nine-bed hospital in Tromsø hesitated to replace the vermin-ridden bedding, Sister Elisabeth arranged a bon re, then insisted that if fresh new bedding were not provided, she could not possibly do her work and might as well return to Oslo. On set- ting up an ambulance service for her new hospital in Brooklyn, she set out to buy a horse from a trolley company and, having made her choice from his stable, insisted that the manager offset the cost of the harness from the price of the horse, since—she argued—the ambulance service was likely to be used often to aid pedestrians who had been run down by his company’s trolleys. She returned home with extra cash for fodder in her pocket.
Fru Christian Børs, the wife of the Norwegian consul in New York, had pledged to support Sister Elisabeth with $150 per year at the time she began setting up her Relief Society. Of this, $9 per month was spent on three rooms at 109 William Street in Brooklyn, into which were t the headquarters of the Society, storage for food and clothing she gathered to distribute to indigent Norwegians throughout Brooklyn and New York, a few beds to care for patients who were not strong enough to go home after treatment, and living space for herself and for the women she would train as sister deaconesses. Neither the Deaconess Institute in Norway nor any of the young Lutheran synods pledged additional regular support, so first among Sister Elisabeth’s organizational skills was fundraising. She won over some of the Lutheran clergy and especially the pastors of the Norwegian Seamen’s Mission Church, but those sources required constant organizing of women’s sewing circles and fundraising events. (And occasionally a difficult Lutheran divine would question the propriety of selling lotteries at these church events.) On January 11, 1884, her diary entry reads: “At five places to solicit money; received $7,” and on April 17 of the same year the entry is a single word: “Bazaar.” Although she avoided the appearance of a conflict of interest by not serving as a board member governing any of her institutions, she was careful to see that women, like her first patron Anna Børs, served alongside male board members.
The Deaconess Institute in Kristiania declined to send her other deaconesses to staff her hospital. Yet Sister Elisabeth found that independence in funding, staffing, and synodical alignment had a value. Another pastor, William A. Passavant, whose transplanted German deaconesses were already active but not flourishing in his Pittsburgh Infirmary, remarked that it was better for Sister Elisabeth to train her own deaconess sisters, establishing a Norwegian-American deaconess movement and not simply a Norwegian foreign mission. In 1889 the managers of the Norwegian Relief Society set up a nine-bed hospital in Brooklyn and admitted their first student, thus creating the first Norwegian-American deaconess motherhouse.
Norwegian identity was important to Sister Elisabeth, though she almost instantly set herself the task of learning English, at first simply to facilitate shopping. Yet her heart was with the Norwegians who found themselves far from the home of their childhood. Witness a diary entry to this effect:
First, to Trinity [Episcopal] Hospital to a sick girl. Hoped to send two children to the country but they were ill; and searched for a job for a woman. After dinner to Ward Island, where there are now eight Norwegians, three Swedes, and two Danes. A sick woman said to me: “How good God is to me! He hears my sighs in a strange land and sends one to whom I can talk,” and she burst into tears; I stayed a long time with her. Another said, “Oh, how I have waited for you!”
Sister Elisabeth’s success in learning the language of Brooklyn was demonstrated in 1894, when she made a speech to the City Committee of the State Assembly in Albany, which won her steadily growing hospital—now thirty beds in purpose-built premises at 4602 Fourth Avenue—the same $4000 annual subsidy granted to other Brooklyn community hospitals.
Sister Elisabeth had had some theological training in Kristiania. Her piety was centered around service to the Savior and devotional use of the Bible, though she never failed to steer Norwegian patients toward Lutheran pastors for baptism, confirmation, marriage, burial, and other pastoral acts, as these were needed. She was criticized for placing some patients, for ease of visitation, in Episcopal hospitals, thereby exposing them to non-Lutheran teaching. As was common in the days before the twentieth-century ecumenical movement, she felt a rigid separation from Roman Catholic doc- trine and practice. Two diary entries from 1883 illustrate this.
June 17. Sunday. At the hospital in Jersey City and found there a young man fatally sick, but who is likely ill prepared to die; he has denied his faith in order to avail himself of the security the Catholics offer him.
June 22. Three sick calls; four visits to meet housewives but did not find them all at home; yet God has His hand in everything. I have therefore had the opportunity to talk to beggars; God’s love, which today also calls repentant children, touched one of them; she confessed with tears that she had strayed from the Savior because she had gotten away from hearing God’s Word. God help her to return to the Father’s house and pray for mercy!
Did Sister Elisabeth regard the diaconate as a permanent office in the church or a form of service that lasted only as long as one was active in it? She remarked with great affection in her brief “autobiography” that when she entered the motherhouse of Kristiania, her cap was first placed upon her head by the aged Sister Rikka Nissen, barely strong enough to reach over the side of her bed, clearly at home in the motherhouse until the end of her days on earth and well past the days of active service. Sister Elisabeth named her foundations in both Brooklyn and in Minneapolis “Home and Hospital,” Home referring to the place where a community of sisters found community and peaceful support together, Hospital to the place not only of caring for their patients but also the school where they learned to practice their particular service to Christ. Only unmarried women were allowed to enter the deaconess community and, although the rules were eased somewhat during Sister Elisabeth’s lifetime, a deaconess who wished to marry usually resigned the service. It seems that there was no disapproval of a deaconess who left the community, except perhaps disappointment if the time of service had been relatively brief.
Particularly distressing was a sister who could not adapt to the life of the diaconate. In 1885 Ottilie Olsen had arrived from Arendal, Norway, to become an American deaconess. Sister Elisabeth wrote joyfully:
May 16. Today our first Sister came. God bless her coming and going from now until eternity for Your name’s sake and make her useful in spirit and truth! The meeting with her on board was happy, and we felt God’s nearness. I pressed her to my breast and in Jesus’ name bade her welcome and from the bottom of my heart I could thank God for sending her to me. It ended with a very good evening together with both our dear pastors and we really rejoiced in being God’s children.
Beginning in January of 1886 Sister Elisabeth’s diary entries note that Sister Ottilie is frequently sick or indisposed, though she gives no trace of blame. Towards the end of the year the break came, as noted in the November 18 entry: “Since I wrote last, there have been many changes. On the 8th, board meeting: Sister Ottilie was dismissed, and both Sisters in training have left. Today Ottilie went and I can’t deny that it was hard, but it was best.”
Sister Elisabeth’s own departure from the diaconate after twenty-seven years of vigorous and wonderfully effective service in order to marry her long-patient Ole Slettebø is perhaps her most valuable example of holiness for this present age. Modern sensibilities are not quite at ease with the late-nineteenth-century expectation that Lutheran pastors serve best with the support of a wife, while Lutheran deaconess candidates were required to be unmarried at the time they entered training and remain celibate during the course of their active service. By contrast, Sister Elisabeth’s movement through celibacy to marriage affirms both the Confessional resistance to forbidding marriage to those who serve the church (Augsburg Confession XXIII) and the possibility of a sanctified, freely chosen, perhaps temporary celibacy as valuable for some forms of service (AC XXVII). That she found it possible to serve God and the church in both estates is a remarkable example and demonstration of grace.
Kelly-Ray Meritt, after twenty-three years of chaplaincy at VA hospitals, now specializes in interim/transitional pastoral care, mostly with LCMS congregations.
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1. The spelling of Elisabeth, or Elizabeth, is inconsistent in the documents at hand. My preference for the first is completely idiosyncratic. The surname Fedde indicates that her family came from the farm at Feda in Flekkefjord. Her brother-in-law Gabriel, who preceded her to the United States and wrote the letter which inspired her American mission, was from the same town and so used the same surname as his wife, Elisabeth’s sister. Sometimes Sister Elisabeth’s married name Slettebø appears as Sletteb; my ignorance of the rules of Norwegian orthography allows me no opinion on the matter.
2. The Borrowed Sister: The Story of Elisabeth Fedde (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1953), Erling Nicolai Rolfsrud’s account of Sister Elisabeth’s life as a deaconess, is barely 120 pages long and scarcely a complete biography. Both in style and format it seems aimed at young women, most likely intended to challenge confirmands to consider whether they might be called to the diaconate, though it brought not a single new deaconess to the Brooklyn motherhouse. In spite of its impossibly dramatized dialogue, frequent mentions of tear-glistened cheeks, and coyness regarding the precise nature of the protagonist’s “serious illness” and “dangerous surgery,” it remains the most complete account in English, fully incorporating Sister Elizabeth’s slender 650-word account of her training and service in Norway.
3. I am indebted to my colleague, Robert Boehler, for his presentation on hagiography at a recent Winkelkonferenz of the Bronx-Manhattan-Westchester Circuit. He observed that the field is now dominated by academics interested in gender studies, which led me to the nine essays collected in Norwegian American Women: Migration, Communities, and Identities, eds. Betty A. Bergland and Lori Ann Lahlum (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2011). Nearly every chapter has some reference to Sister Elisabeth, including Ann M. Legreid’s fine, concise sketch of her life in the chapter “Home, Health, and Christian Respectability: Norwegian Immigrant Women in Family and Community Health,” though from a thoroughly secular perspective. This collection values Sister Elisabeth’s diary as a first-person narrative that has been preserved, unique in its period for not being the work of a pastor’s wife but of a professional woman in her own right and of one who opened the possibility of independent employment for other professional women, that is, deaconess-nurses. Deaconesses make up a statistically significant portion of women immigrants in this category at certain periods in both Brooklyn (1892) and Minneapolis-St. Paul (1900 and 1920); see David C. Mauk’s chapter “Finding Their Way in the City: Norwegian American Women and Their Daughters in Urban Areas, 1880s–1920s.” The same collection places Sister Elisabeth in the special category of “sojourner” rather than “immigrant” since she eventually returned to Norway, though it concedes that she both understood and speaks for the immigrant experience.
4. St. Olaf College maintains an online archive for the Norwegian-American Historical Association, including Beulah Folkedahl’s English translation of “about half” of Sister Elisabeth’s 1883–1888 diary, along with a very sympathetic biography. The glossing of references to particular persons and circumstances is sketchy, and there is no explanation of how this half of her diary was chosen, or the other half excluded, from the translation. Nonetheless, this is a marvelous window into the voice and character of the woman.
5. In 2008, Sister Marilyn Stauffer, on a webpage for the Lutheran Medical Center and School of Nursing, wrote this epitaph to Sister Elisabeth’s mission in Brooklyn: “In 1956, Lutheran Norwegian Deaconess Home and Hospital merged with Lutheran Hospital of Manhattan, and the name changed to Lutheran Medical Center. The last deaconess was consecrated in 1946 and by the time of the merger, only four were still living. When Sister Aasta Foreland died in 2001, the Brooklyn motherhouse came to an end.” Photographs evocative of the Sister Elisabeth’s work in New York City may be found at the ELCA's Archives.