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Arland O. Fiske: Norwegian deaconess builds a hospital in Chicago

Much has been written about the strong character of Norwegian women in ancient times and during the Middle Ages. The description of Helga in the comic strip, “Hagar the Horrible,” is amusing but not atypical.

That determination and strength continued in the Norwegian deaconesses who came to Chicago at the turn of the twentieth century.

Chicago was a popular stopping off place for immigrants from Scandinavia. The area around Humboldt Park and Logan Square, northwest of the Loop, became dotted with churches started by those newcomers to America.

This metropolis of the Midwest had some rough and tumble sections. It was into those places of poverty, hardship and crime that a group of young women set out to build a hospital, start a school of nursing and reach out to families in need. They had a special concern for orphans, unwed mothers, the aged and drunks on Skid Row.

The deaconess movement began in Kaisersworth, Germany, in 1836, under the direction of Theodore Fliedner who established its famous motherhouse. Florence Nightingale learned nursing there. It became the model for the deaconess programs throughout Europe and America. Several of the leaders in Chicago came from the motherhouse in Oslo.

The head of the local order was called both “Mother Superior” and “Sister Superior.” The members were called “sisters.” The name “deaconess” means “one who serves.” It’s a work that goes back to biblical times. Many sisters became nurses; others became social workers, parish workers and some missionaries.

Having been turned out of the earlier-founded Norwegian-American Hospital in Chicago, the sisters did not give up. They organized a society in 1896 that became a part of the United Norwegian Lutheran Church of America. Beginning in rented quarters, they opened the Norwegian Deaconess home and Hospital in 1902 on Leavitt Street. H. B. Kildahl was the first rector (chaplain).

The hospital continued until 1969. But this was not the end of the story. A new medical center, Lutheran General in suburban Park Ridge, is one of the finest and is the largest in Chicagoland. It is the successor to the deaconess’ work. I was a non-medical teacher at the new hospital from 1967 to 1972 and have a daughter-in-law who graduated from the School of Nursing.

My first contact with the Chicago Deaconess Hospital was as a seminary intern at Bethel Lutheran Church by Humboldt Park in 1950-1951. Together with group graduate students, I was invited to a Halloween party to the hospital sponsored by the School of Nursing. This was not an unusual thing for these schools to do in hopes of the students meeting eligible young men. In my case, it was just a party with no lingering friendships.

One Deaconess in particular, Sister Magdalene Klippen, was the life of the party. It was only later that I learned of her fearless courage and her compassion for the poor of the city. A Chicago Sun Times newspaper reporter wanted a story on Sister Magdalene’s Skid Row work, but insisted on having police protection as he followed her around. The Skid Row residents, however, had great affection for her. She was their “angel.”

Sister Ingeborg Sponland (1860-1951), born in Norway, was superintendent of the hospital for 20 years. She spent 66 years in deaconess work and is remembered for saying, “as a deaconess, speak with your hands. Good honest work is the best sermon.” These great women represented the best in the Scandinavian heritage.

Next Week: Discovering Numedal.

— ARLAND FISKE, a retired Lutheran minister who previously lived in Laporte and now lives in Texas, is the author of 10 books on Scandinavian themes.