Cecilia Blomqvist

History of the Helsinki Deaconess Institute published
– 150 years of helping the most vulnerable

This year the Helsinki Deaconess Institute turns 150. To mark the occasion the Institute has published a history of its work, Ihmisen arvo – Helsingin Diakonissalaitos 150 vuotta (Human Dignity – 150 Years of the Helsinki Deaconess Institute). Its author is Dr Jyrki Paaskoski and the book is published by Edita Publishing.

– The book provides a picture of the growth of the small hospital for infectious diseases and the deaconesses’ sister’s home into a social concern producing social, health and educational services. It also depicts the role of diaconic activity in society in working with social problems, especially in those areas where society has been weak and vulnerable, says Paaskoski.

A vocation to help

The model for the Helsinki Deaconess Institute was the deaconess institute at Kaiserwerth in Germany, established in 1836, where women were given training as sisters of charity serving the poor and the sick. Its founder, Pastor Theodor Fliedner, developed the special profession of women nurses, whom he called deaconesses. These were unmarried, young women or childless widows who lived at the sisters’ home. The work with impoverished patients was unpaid, but in return the sisters received an education, full board and lodging, and security in old age. The system provided women with a new and meaningful way to work for people in distress. At the same time the women were in a position to work more independently and freely, outside the dominant family model.

The deaconess institutional model was brought to Finland by Aurora Karamzin, a noblewoman and wife of a colonel. Her approach was that social problems and poverty could be solved by helping one’s neighbour in distress, first materially and then by reforming his or her spiritual existence. It was only in 1959 that the sister home system was abolished in Finland as having served its purpose.

– I have been particularly interested in the deaconess’s calling, or the motives and factors that made the women enrol with the Deaconess Institute. A special focus was the periods of crisis in Finland, the 1918 Civil War and the war years from 1939–1944, when the sisters’ vocation put them under severe strain in the harsh conditions of those times, explains Paaskoski.

Part of society’s development

Paaskoski says that the starting point for his study was to connect the Deaconess Institute’s 150-year history to the bigger picture of the development of Finnish society and the changes that took place within it. In particular, this provides a basis for reflecting on the transitions and turning points of the discourse between diaconic work, church, and state.

From the perspective of recent history, it is interesting to examine how the institute adapted to the downfall of the welfare state that started with the depression of the 1990s, and how it became a versatile producer of social services.

– The 1990s depression and process of getting out of it provided diaconic activity with a new working terrain, as the stricken welfare state welcomed help offered it with open arms. Diaconic work with difficult social problems requires networked cooperation and a high degree of expertise among staff members, says Paaskoski.

With the advent of the 2000s the Helsinki Deaconess Institute was no longer an intermittent complement to the social welfare and service system, but was a part of the service chain of the country’s welfare state. Its client base comprises the most demanding cases of clients who are homeless alcoholics or drug addicts.

The institute’s various phases within its long history have involves ups and downs in diaconic work. Paaskoski thinks that as it turns 150 the institute is once more in transition and perhaps on the threshold of a new era of diaconic work. The reform of the social and health care system (known as the Sote reform), which has been under preparation for years, is nearing completion, and it will have an impact on the activities of the Deaconess Institute.

Foundation president Olli Holmström believes that the Sote reform process will provide the scope for renewing the institute and for strengthening the value base in society of Christian love for one’s neighbour.

– Even though the operating environment is changing, our mission of attending to human dignity has not changed. The core focus of our work is to help people who are in the most vulnerable situations. Diaconic work must continue to go where distress, shame, and suffering are the greatest, says Holmström.

Ihmisen arvo – Helsingin Diakonissalaitos 150 vuotta. Jyrki Paaskoski. Publications of the Helsinki Deaconess Institute. Edita Publishing Oy. ISBN 978-951-37-7121-8. Porvoo, 2017 (in Finnish)

Dr Jyrki Paaskoski is a docent of Finnish and Russian history at the universities of Helsinki and Eastern Finland. He has published numerous scientific monographs, articles, and studies. Paaskoski has also written several historical studies on commission.

pdfHuman Dignity – 150 Years of the Helsinki Deaconess Institute (Summary)

Further information

Dr Jyrki Paaskoski, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., tel: +358 50 556 5614

President Olli Holmström, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., tel: +358 50 483 6313

Communications director Laura Niemi, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., tel. +358 50 373 8602

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Aurora Karamzin 1867