Following the example of German Lutherans in the early nineteenth century, and later of English Anglicans, during 1885–1970 almost five hundred Episcopal women were “set apart” as deaconesses to care for “the sick, the afflicted, and the poor.” The 1889 General Convention passed a canon on deaconesses that recognized their ministry. This canon reflected the influence of Mary Abbot Emery and William Reed Huntington. It set standards and qualifications for the deaconesses. Wearing blue habits that often caused them to be mistaken for nuns, they served in places of poverty ranging from the inner city to swamps and mountains. Their work included instructing in the faith, preparing candidates for baptism and confirmation, caring for women and children, and organizing and carrying on social work. There were training schools for deaconesses in New York and Philadelphia. Although deaconesses were more purely diaconal than their male counterparts (missionary and indigenous deacons) in care of the needy, the church did not allow them to function liturgically. In 1970, women were allowed to be ordained as deacons. All deaconesses were automatically assumed into the diaconate, although a few refused to be called deacons.
From Don S. Armentrout’s An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church: A User-Friendly Reference for Episcopalians Church Publishing Inc., 2000.