Norwegian Brooklyn’s soul Sister recognized

Artifacts from Sister Elisabeth Fedde’s life and work on display at Lutheran HealthCare

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Social responsibility is part of our Scandinavian DNA. This core value was transplanted by the Norwegian emigrants who settled in the U.S.; their awareness of societal hardships was not only acknowledged, but also followed up on. Across the country you see concrete evidence of what they built, establishing institutions that served the common good, often for the most vulnerable, from schools and sports clubs to churches and health care facilities.

The Norwegian Deaconess Hospital, today known as Lutheran HealthCare, is one such institution. In the late 1880s, Anna Bors, the wife of the Norwegian/Swedish Consul in New York, was the impetus behind the hospital’s creation. She was concerned about the destitute conditions in which Norwegians were living in Red Hook and partnered with Reverend Mortensen from the Scandinavian Seamen’s Mission in New York. A call was made to Norway seeking a Deaconess trained in nursing who was able and willing to minister to those Norwegians who had settled in southwest Brooklyn. The remarkable woman who heeded this call was Sister Elisabeth Fedde. By her ninth day in Brooklyn the Norwegian Relief Society had been founded.

Although Fedde had a stipend for living expenses, which had been personally provided for by Bors, there was no money for supplies, nor a place to house the sick. She began by asking for donations, carrying a basket up and down the waterfront streets and piers of Red Hook. She made house calls. And of course the Board of the Society was also active in fundraising. She was soon able to rent a home on Williams Street in Red Hook, which provided beds for the sick and was known as Det Diakonissehjem.

It was soon evident that a proper hospital was warranted. According to an article written in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle on April 5, 1891, entitled, “Among the Norwegians: The Active Work of Scandinavian Missionaries,” which spoke about the creation of the Deaconess Hospital and Scandinavian Social Ministry, “Between 25 and 50 percent of sailors on American vessels are Scandinavians: the entire deep water fleet, schooners, yachts, navy and coasting steamers, and government vessels, as to their crew beyond the masts, are manned chiefly by Scandinavians.” This resulted in the following: “More than twenty thousand Scandinavian sailors come yearly to the port of New York.” This was a tremendous number, when one considers the population of Brooklyn at that time. Of course, along with this wandering population came problems.

Six years later, Fedde’s work caught the attention of some very prestigious and well-heeled New Yorkers, Charles Vanderbilt and John D. Rockefeller. Land was purchased at the corner of Fourth Avenue and 46th Street. A wood-framed building that could accommodate 30 patients was built. It included a sunroom and views of the harbor from some of the windows, a true sense of coziness and comfort, including those preferences essential in Norwegian culture. Perhaps one of the most charming photos of the time includes the hospital’s horse-drawn ambulance, the horse featured in the photo was called Freya. Knowledge of Fedde’s success spread across the country—so much so that in 1889 she was asked to create a deaconess’s home out west.

A book has been written about Sister Elisabeth and her social ministry: “The Borrowed Sister.” In it we learn that her dedication knew no bounds. While on a well-deserved respite vacationing in the Chicago area, she was asked to establish another hospital. And she did. She is a fascinating woman and the institution she came to found has been through many, many incarnations, including name changes from Norwegian Lutheran Deaconess Home & Hospital, more recently to Lutheran Medical Center and now Lutheran HealthCare, which last year became affiliated with NYU Langone.

Today, LHC has grown from a few beds in Red Hook to a hospital of about 400 beds. This facility, which began as a mission for Norwegian sailors, now has bilingual services in Arabic, Spanish, Russian, and even an entire floor dedicated to Chinese patients. So, it is wonderful to know that in the spring of 2014, the Heritage Gallery was dedicated in honor of the hospital’s 130th anniversary and the Sister’s amazing work.

According to an article in the revived Brooklyn Daily Eagle dated April 8, 2011, “Lutheran HealthCare (LHC) celebrated its 128-year legacy by blessing and dedicating the Norwegian grandfather clock that LHC founder Sister Elisabeth Fedde brought with her from Norway when she arrived in New York on April 8, 1883. The important symbol of faith-based heritage had been handed down through generations by deaconesses and nurses, the last of whom, Esther Lieurance, R.N., was a 1961 graduate of Lutheran Medical Center’s School of Nursing. Sister Fedde’s clock will remain prominently displayed in Lutheran’s heritage gallery.” So, the gallery has been in the works for quite a while.

The hospital states the following about the gallery’s creation: “We propose to pay tribute to our rich history and shared mission by creating the Sister Elisabeth Fedde Heritage Gallery. Lutheran HealthCare has always existed for the sole purpose of serving its neighbors. As we continue to carry out this mission, we believe we cannot understand who we are or where we are going unless we intentionally re-member, reclaim, and re-embrace our heritage—our roots and unique story—a story packed with meaning and inspiration. Otherwise, we risk losing our faith-based, missional identity and motivation to serve.”

About 20 years ago, I was working with the NYC State Archives, trying to document Norwegian history. I discovered that Norwegians were considered undocumented by that agency, archivally. In other words, N.Y. State Archives had very few records if any of Norwegian institutions, organizations, etc. I worked to gather the heads of Norwegian organizations that still existed in New York City. One such institution was Lutheran Medical Center. At the time the hospital was over 100 years old, but the only archival materials still at the hospital fit in a large box. This was very disconcerting. So, shortly after this, when the hospital included a small display area with a bust of Anna Bors, a trowel from a former building, the letter asking Fedde to accept the call to do her mission work in Brooklyn, and a few other items, it was a start.

As you enter the gallery you see the following quote from Marcus Garvey, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.” As more and more of New York’s Scandinavian heritage gets subsumed it is wonderful to have, if only in a small room (how Norwegian), a tribute to this amazing woman, whose sense of mission remains alive in the hospital today.

The small grouping of artifacts that had been in a display case decades ago has been joined by the clock, as well as nurse uniforms and handbooks, photos, and of course text. The gallery was funded by donations from the community. There is also an accompanying brochure dedicated to Howard and Elsie Smith, both fierce supporters of the hospital and its legacy. Howard served on its Board and Elsie is a very compassionate chaplin. The gallery is a work in progress and will change as more artifacts are re-claimed.

Perhaps the most endearing piece is a handiwork made by the good Sister herself. It reveals the Sister’s whimsical side. It is a large scene depicting hay making. One child has toppled upside down into a bale of hay. How do you know? Only his feet can be seen sticking out of the hay bale.

Once in a while you can see the Sister scurrying through the hospital dressed in her crisp uniform. Of course this is a delightful imposter who keeps the Sister’s spirit alive at special occasions—another way that the hospital has memorialized the Sister’s legacy and made her relevant today.

So, a tusen takk for those who remained steadfast in ensuring that the dream of a gallery dedicated to Sister Elisabeth and the Norwegian roots of the institution. Sister Elisabeth’s life is a wonderful model for all; for it illustrates that with compassion and tenacity, even a sole person can change the world.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 23, 2014, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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