calendar February 27, 2023 in News

Black History Month: Pioneering Deaconesses

Do you know the name Emma Francis? She was the first deaconess of African descent to serve in North America and the first Lutheran deaconess to come from the West Indies.1 She was born in St. Kitts in 1876, received teacher training at a Moravian College there, and received her missionary and nursing training in Germany. In 1908, she helped open an orphanage, the Ebenezer Home for Girls in Frederickstad, St. Croix, which was a Danish territory until it was purchased by the United States in 1917.2

The Lutheran Church in the Virgin Islands was affiliated with the United Lutheran Church in America (ULCA), a predecessor to the ELCA. When the US purchased the islands, Emma Francis came to the Deaconess Motherhouse in Philadelphia, PA. From 1921 to 1927, she lived in Harlem, New York. She spoke three different languages (English, German and Spanish) and was able to help many arriving to the city from various places who might not otherwise find the help they needed.3

Sister Emma Francis

She was consecrated a Deaconess on Pentecost in 1922;4 thus becoming the first African descent deaconess in North American Lutheranism. In addition, she helped to found the mission, the predecessor to the Lutheran Church of the Transfiguration, now the Christ Center at Transformation.5 She even provided some of the money to make the initial payment on the new building.6

Sister Emma Francis returned to St. Croix in 1927 and served at the Ebenezer Home for Girls for nearly 40 years.7  The Ebenezer Home still remains as the Queen Louise Home for Children. In the 1980s, the “Sister Emma Cottage” was opened. It is a special unit that provides intensive 24-hour residential foster care for children and young adults with severe developmental and physical disabilities.8 Learn more about Sister Emma.

Sister Edith Prince

Another name you might know is Edith Prince. Like Sr. Emma Francis, she was a native of St. Kitts. She was brought to St. Croix by her widowed mother. Shortly after her mother died, she was brought to the Ebenezer Home for Girls, where Sister Emma Francis became her mentor. Edith Prince studied to become a deaconess at the ULCA Motherhouse in Philadelphia, PA. In 1926, after becoming the second Lutheran deaconess of African descent in North America, she joined the staff of Transfiguration Lutheran Church in Harlem, NY. She served a short period there before returning to Frederickstad, where she spent the majority of her professional career.9

A bit about Transfiguration Lutheran Church: It was organized in 1920 as a mission by members of Harlem Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church, most of whom were from the US Virgin Islands. This was a time when the large numbers of Black Lutherans from the islands were coming to New York since before the turn of the century. According to the Minutes of the Church’s Biennial Convention this “mission in the heart of Manhattan” was established for “those worshipers who . . . on account of the color which God put in their skin, were without a home.” 10 In 1928, Rev. Paul Edward West was called to Transfiguration. He was the first African American pastor of a congregation in New York City.11 He served there until ill health forced him to retire in 1956.12

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  1. McClinton, Sister Megan. “Sister Emma Francis, First Black Deaconess to Serve in North America and the First Lutheran Deaconess from the West Indies” Lower Susquehanna Synod Blog, August 18, 2022,
  2. Jeff G. Johnson, Black Christians: The Untold Lutheran Story, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1991), p. 50.
  3. McClinton, cit.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Cady, G. Scott and Webber, Christopher L. “Feast of Emma Francis (December 7)” neatnik2009, June 25, 2019, https://neatnik2009,
  6. Johnson, cit.
  7. “Sister Emma Cottage” Lutheran Social Services of the Virgin Islands, June 10, 2016, http:/
  8. Johnson, cit.
  9. Miller, Tom. “Daytonian in Manhattan: The Stories Behind the Buildings, Statues and Other Points of Interest That Make Manhattan Fascinating,”
  10. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, African American Ministries Program, Commission for Multicultural Ministries, Report on African American Ministry (Chicago: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 1993), p. 19.
  11. Miller, op cit.