Thursday, March 25, 2010

Women's History Month: Episcopalians

Harriet M. Bedell
(March 19, 1875 – January 8, 1969)

Harriet M. Bedell. Episcopal deaconess and missionary among American Indian and Alaskan Native peoples. A students from the New York Training School for Deaconesses, Bedell was set apart as a deaconess in 1922, after she worked as a missionary among the Cheyenne in Oklahoma, and as a teacher and nurse in Alaska, 40 miles south of the Arctic Circle, where she traveled by dogsled to remote villages. During her last years in Alaska, Bedell opened a boarding school that was eventually closed due to a lack of funds.

In 1932, she learned about the plight of the Seminoles in Florida and used her own salary to reopen a mission among the Mikasuki Indians. Though forced to “officially” retire at age 63, she continued her ministry of health care, education, and economic empowerment until 1960 when Hurricane Donna wipes out the mission. Active into her 80s, she drove an average of twenty thousand miles per year during her ministry. Deaconess Bedell was one of the most popular writers in the national Episcopal mission periodical, The Spirit of Missions.

She won the respect of indigenous people through her compassion and her respect of their way of life and beliefs. While active in ministry among the Cheyenne, she was eventually adopted into the tribe and given the name “Bird Woman.” Bedell emphasized health and education rather than religious conversion in her work with the Seminoles; their spiritual and physical comfort was more important to her than religious conversion, and her work and friendship with the Seminoles of Florida reflected those values.

The Episcopal Church commemorates her on January 8, the anniversary of her death.

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