Photographer Fiona Essex (1978) visited and lived with a Deaconess Sisterhood between 2005 and 2010 and documented the lives of the Sisters.
The Deaconess – Sisterhood Neumünster was formed in 1858 with five sisters and reached its peak in 1946 with 600. Since then on due to economic and social reasons the number of women choosing this way of life has gradually declined.
The word deaconry derives from the ancient Greek word diakonia which means service. It expresses the collectivity of charitable undertakings that have their root in the Sisters’ faith, together with a shared commitment to a frugal lifestyle, celibacy and obedience. A woman who chooses this life is known as a Deaconess or Sister.
These pictures were taken between 2005 and 2010 as Essex visited and lived with the Sisters. By the beginning of 2011 there were just 68 Sisters still living at the Sisterhood on the Zollikerberg hillside, on the outskirts of Zürich in Switzerland. After a lifetime combining faith and service in the Sister-run hospital most of the Sisters have now retired. Each Sister lives in her own room in the Motherhouse which includes a small kitchen and bathroom. As Sisters become more frail they are provided with their own room in the hospital-run care centre a short walk from the Motherhouse.
Essex’ interest was to capture the nature of the day-to-day lives of these Sisters. She visited and lived in their guest accommodation next to the Motherhouse, spending time getting to know some of the Sisters individually and becoming aware of what their life involved before starting to take these pictures. This included discovering not just their dedication to their faith but the practical aspects of their lives including the challenges faced by a group of people remaining living together over a long period of time.
Photographs and text copyright Fiona Essex.