Presbyterian Deaconesses who served NZ’s poor and vulnerable recognised by UNESCO

The UNESCO Memory of the World New Zealand Trust announced today that the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand Deaconess Collection has been awarded prestigious documentary heritage status.

The Collection is located at the Church’s Presbyterian Research Centre in Dunedin. 

“The Deaconess Collection shines a light on a group of New Zealand women, who over 75 years served many of New Zealand’s poor and vulnerable, yet to this day their stories are largely untold,” says Jane Thomsen, Director, Presbyterian Research Centre.

“Because the Presbyterian Church was at the centre of everyday life in the early 20th century, this collection is a rich and unique source of information about the rise of social services, gender inequality and the role of women outside the home in the 1900s.

“We are delighted by UNESCO’s recognition of the Collection because it will provide a springboard for the stories of these pioneering women in ministry to be heard.”

Although from the early days of the Presbyterian Church in colonial New Zealand women were a majority in congregations and central to the success of church missions, the cultural attitude that women should not hold public office meant they were denied positions in church government. This changed mid-20th century. Margaret Martin, who was a Presbyterian Deaconess in the 1950s, became New Zealand's first woman to be ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1965.*

The Presbyterian Deaconess Collection is the Church’s second collection to be awarded coveted UNESCO Memory of the World New Zealand status; the Presbyterian Research Centre’s Ng New Zealand Chinese Heritage Collection was awarded in 2017. 

The Memory of the World New Zealand Trust Chair Bruce Ralston says, “This week we celebrate 125 years since New Zealand women went out to vote. The 1893 Women’s Suffrage Petition has UNESCO recognition on the International and New Zealand registers. We are very pleased to honour four new inscriptions that reflect the activities and roles of women over a period of almost 200 years.”

“These inscriptions demonstrate the many different forms that documentary heritage take, from 1800s writing slates to oral history recordings in the 1990s. It is valuable for our sense of identity. It records our history and helps us understand how we have become the society we are. But it is fragile and cannot be taken for granted. 

“Through UNESCO’s Memory of the World scheme the preservation and access to our memory through documentary heritage is brought to public awareness.

These latest listings bring the total to 35 documentary heritage collections on the New Zealand register.  Each is a valuable source of research for historians, researchers, educators and many others in New Zealand and the world.


*Ben Schrader, 'Presbyterian Church - Growth, reform and challenges', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand,
Very Rev Margaret Reid Martin, QSO – Deaconess, Ordained minister and Moderator of the Presbyterian Church General Assembly, 1987 (first ordained woman, and second woman to be Moderator – spiritual leader – of the Presbyterian Church).

Background on Presbyterian Research Centre:
The Presbyterian Research Centre is a national agency of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand. It is based in Dunedin and has collections that can be accessed online. Its collections document the life and work of the Presbyterian Church in Aotearoa New Zealand 
The Presbyterian Church is the third largest denomination in Aotearoa New Zealand, with more than 300,000 people identifying as Presbyterian in the 2013 Census, and 30,000 regular church attenders.

The Presbyterian Deaconess Collection:

The collection documents the life and work of 175 New Zealand women from 1901-1975. Deaconesses were an order for women in the Presbyterian Church and although their training was almost identical to ministry training, they were not ordained. Their service was to the Presbyterian Church and to the wider community. 

Following the decision to ordain women as ministers in 1965, demand for training in the Deaconess Order declined, and in 1975 the Deaconess Order was terminated. Deaconesses were offered the choice of being ordained to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament, or of resuming lay status while continuing in their employment.

The Deaconess order is an example of the growth of active women’s leadership funded by women during the 20th Century, responding to social pressures caused by issues including the Depression, both World Wars and the inter-war and post-war periods. Through their work the deaconesses made significant contributions to education and social services throughout New Zealand, from the Tūhoe in the Urewera to underprivileged communities in Dunedin. 
The Deaconess order was a way of making women’s work visible within society and gave women a voice and a formal role outside the home, paving the way for the ordination of women, which finally happened in 1965. (The Presbyterian Church was one of the first Christian denominations in New Zealand to formally give women office as elders and ordained ministers.)

Background on UNESCO Memory of the World
UNESCO launched the Memory of the World Programme in 1992 and sits alongside UNESCO’s World Heritage List and Register of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
The Memory of the World register is the most visible part of the programme.  It highlights significant documentary heritage as a way of demonstrating the importance of preserving and providing access to all documentary heritage. The programme operates at three levels -  international, regional and national.  The New Zealand programme was established in 2010. Further information about Memory of the World and the inscriptions on the New Zealand register can be viewed at
•    New Zealand also has inscriptions on the Asia and Pacific register and the international register.
•    UNESCO recognition draws attention to the significance of documentary heritage and the role that professional custodians and individuals play in ensuring its preservation and accessibility.
•    The NZ register promotes the stories of our country to the wider New Zealand community and internationally.
•    The programme is the only one in New Zealand that takes an overview of all New Zealand’s documentary heritage.
•    The New Zealand Trust is part of the international community working to promote the importance of documentary heritage through the UNESCO Memory of the World Programme.