Mennonite Archives of Virginia
Nettie Pearl Suter, a Virginia Mennonite Deaconness

by Leona Good, EMHS Senior History student, 2012

      Nettie Pearl Blosser was born to Daniel A. and Mary C. (Showalter) Blosser in Harrisonburg, Virginia on July 8, 1888 and was the oldest of seven children (Gospel). She married John Early Suter on October 9, 1907 at the age of 19 (Gospel).  John Early had just been ordained as a minister on August 11 that year (Suter, Mary Eugenia). For their honeymoon, they went by horse and buggy to Virginia Conference in Springdale (Suter, N. Pearl). They had four children: Margaret Grace (Suter) Brunk, Mary Ethel (Suter) Turner, Frances Elizabeth (Suter) Harman, and Daniel Blosser Suter (Gospel). After a year of their married life, they moved to Goshen, Indiana for several months for more Bible study (Suter, N. Pearl). When they moved back, they lived on a small farm in Hinton, Virginia (Showalter). Pearl’s husband was a minister, so she would follow him around to different churches and events (Maust). J. Early often rode the horse over the Shenandoah Mountain to give sermons, so Pearl was often left alone with the children and the farm (Showalter). They lived on the farm until 1915 or so, when they built a house in Park View, right behind the chapel (what is now in 2012 the EMU Sociology Building) (Showalter). They had a garden, a chicken house, fruit trees, grape vines, and a cow (Showalter). These provided them with much, such as eggs, milk, beans, and fruit (Showalter). Jan Showalter, a granddaughter of Pearl, recalls the wonderful meals her grandmother cooked. While J. Early taught at EMC, Pearl’s main job on campus was to be a hostess (Showalter). Many people came from all over the place to attend EMC, so families would stay in the Suter’s home (Showalter). The daughters became tired of running a bed and breakfast and cooking so much food (Showalter).

      During the 1920s, there was an evangelist movement in the church when rules became more strict (Showalter). For example, musical instruments were no longer allowed in the home (Showalter). Daniel said that the only time he saw his mother, Pearl, cry was when they took her organ out of the house. Pearl loved music (Showalter). She loved to dress up and attend her granddaughter’s piano recitals (Showalter). She especially loved to sing (Showalter). Jan spoke of how she loved sitting next to her grandmother when they attended church at Gospel Hill together because Pearl was a wonderful alto singer (Showalter). It was unfortunate, though, that she wasn’t allowed to lead music in front of men because that was deemed unacceptable (Showalter). However, once a year the family would go to Luray and meet in a log church to have all day singing (Showalter). At this event, she was able to share her passion for music by leading songs (Showalter).

       Pearl was ordained as a deaconess on July 26, 1928 (Virginia Mennonite Archives). She came from a line of deaconesses, as both her mother, Mary (Showalter) Blosser, and grandmother Eliz (Shank) Showalter were also deaconesses (Rich, 103). Mary never wore her covering except when she went to church (Blosser). She would pick it up there and wear it until the service was over (Blosser). Deaconesses were asked to visit sisters of the church who were out of line, sick, or dealing with problems (Blosser). If any woman couldn’t take communion, for example, they would visit them (Blosser). As opposed to ministers, deaconesses were not selected by the lot (Blosser). They were chosen by bishops or ministers based on their gifts, personalities, or commitments (Blosser).When deaconesses were installed, they would sit on the front bench (Suter, Daniel B). The bishop asked them to stand and asked questions and then they ended with prayer (Suter, Daniel B). Daniel B. Suter, son of Pearl, recalls most of his mother’s role as a deaconess mostly involved preparing for baptism and communion (Suter, Daniel B). She would receive the girls once they were baptized (Suter, N. Pearl). She would also help the women when foot washing and be available to assist the deacons in matters when it involved women (Suter, N. Pearl). One time the council asked for her to “deal with two sisters who had fallen into sin” (Suter, Daniel B). She had to reprimand a few girls for trespassing and this was hard for her to do (Suter, N. Pearl). Pearl and Betty Keener were the last two women ordained as deaconesses (Suter, Daniel B)

        As a deaconess, Pearl’s main responsibility was to keep the women in line and acceptable (Showalter). The people of Gospel Hill in Hopkins Gap were a different people; they were mountain people (Showalter). They typically didn’t follow the dress requirements for the time (Showalter). Although when there was baptism, the bishop came (Showalter). Pearl had to fulfill her duties as deaconess and ensure that the women looked appropriate for the bishop’s approval by wearing the coverings, dresses, and long stockings (Showalter). She would even take these clothes along for the women to change into (Suter, N. Pearl). This was very difficult for her and a part of her job that she didn’t enjoy (Showalter). She and her husband were very involved with the congregation at Gospel Hill. Pearl cared very much about them, as showed when she wrote, “Spirituality of the church there became so low at one time I was greatly burdened and shed many tears, but was so happy to see a spiritual growing church yet in my lifetime.”
       Pearl died on April 28, 1958, due to heart dropsy complications and was buried in the Weavers Mennonite Church Cemetery (Gospel). Speaking about her aunt Pearl, Evelyn Maust said, “She was very caring and loving.” Evelyn mentioned that Pearl lived very close to her, and she enjoyed having her as a neighbor (Maust). She remembered going over to her aunt’s house where she would often be sitting in her rocking chair or working in her garden (Maust). Pearl Suter ended her autobiography  with this: “Looking back over my life it was not always an easy one but we were happy serving the Lord together as a family and feel the joy of serving far exceeded the hardships encountered.”


Blosser, Glendon. Personal Interview.

Maust, Evelyn. Personal Interview.

Rich, Elaine Sommers. Mennonite Women: A Story of God’s Faithfulness.   Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1983. Print.                    

Showalter, Jan. 30 October 2012. Personal Interview.

Suter, Daniel B. The Role of the Deaconess. 1980. Print.

Suter, Mary Eugenia. Memories of Yesteryear. Waynesboro, Virginia: Charles F. McClung, Printer, Inc. Print.      

Suter, N. Pearl. Autobiography.

“Gospel Herald” Obituary: Volume 51. 3 June 1958. Print.        

Virginia Mennonite Archives at Eastern Mennonite University –Deaconesses File.                                                                                                                                        

The Life, Mission, and Legacy of Susanna Hartman Brunk

by Rebekah Hertzler, EMHS Senior History student 2012

In the late 1700s, Christian Burkholder, a Mennonite of Switzerland, decided it would be best for his family to make the long journey to America (Roberts).  He felt that an abundance of opportunities awaited his family in America and wanted to pursue them (Roberts).  Unfortunately, Christian died in 1775 before he and his family could make the journey (Roberts).  Despite Christian’s death, the family traveled later that year to Philadelphia, where they made their home in Lancaster County (Roberts).  Christian’s second son, Peter Burkholder, eventually moved his family to Dale Enterprise, Virginia (Roberts).  Less than one hundred years later, Susanna Hartman was born, great-granddaughter to Peter Burkholder (Roberts) on her maternal side (“Gospel”). 

            Susanna Hartman Brunk was born on December 13, 1843 to David and Elizabeth Hartman of Harrisonburg, Virginia (“Gospel”).  Susanna had two brothers, P.S. Hartman of Harrisonburg, Virginia and D.B. Hartman of Canal Dover, Ohio (“Gospel”).  At the age of sixteen, Susanna was baptized (Gospel).  On April 21, 1864, Susanna Hartman was married to Samuel Brunk (“Gospel”).  Samuel enjoyed gardening and was known as a “fruit grower” (MSHL, J.D. Brunk File).  He was also a Mennonite trustee (MSHL, J.D. Brunk File).  Together Samuel and Susanna had five children, although only two survived to adulthood (MSHL, J.D. Brunk File).  Their daughter, Anna E. Brunk, also known as “Liz”, married Joseph H. Brunk; their son, John David Brunk, married Mary Kate Martin (MSHL, J.D. Brunk File).   

            Susanna was ordained as a deaconess on March 19, 1889, at forty-six years of age.  Her ordination took place at her home congregation of Weavers Mennonite Church (Gospel).  Susanna was the ninth deaconess ordained in the Middle District (Brubaker).  The act of ordaining deaconesses began twenty years prior to Susanna’s ordination, when ministers and bishops of the church realized it wasn’t always appropriate to help women in the congregation dealing with certain issues (Brubaker).  In addition, women were needed for chores such as baking bread and preparing grape juice for communion (Brubaker).  Bishop Samuel Coffman was the first one to speak up about this idea, ordaining women in a position he called “deaconess” (Brubaker). 

The main role of a deaconess was to meet with women of the church and offer counsel when experiencing difficulties in life (Brubaker).  This included visiting women after their husbands had died and organizing help from the congregation in areas of chores or farm work (Brubaker).  The more deaconesses performed their various tasks, the more they believed God had appointed them to do this work for the women of the church; they realized the important role deaconesses played in aiding women of the various congregations (Brubaker).

            As Susanna’s work as a deaconess continued, she began to form a conviction that the women of the church should be meeting regularly and doing more to help the outside world (Brubaker).  When Susanna shared this belief with some of the other women, she realized many others were having this same conviction (Brubaker).  Bishop L.J. Heatwole agreed to this proposal and took the idea to Ministerial Council (Brubaker).  Ministerial Council approved this proposition and the first meeting of the women took place on March 21, 1908 (Brubaker) in Susanna’s home (Brunk 113-114).  The women decided to name their group, the “Mission Circle” (Brunk 113-114).  This first name was adopted in 1909; however, it was later changed to Middle District Sewing Circle and eventually, “Weavers Sewing Circle” (Brunk 113-114).  In addition to meeting in Susanna’s home, typically in the winter months, the group also met in the “Gross Daddy” house in Elias Brunk’s yard (Brunk 113-114).  Meetings at the “Gross Daddy” usually took place in the summer months (Brunk 113-114).  Throughout the years, the meeting places changed from time to time (Brunk 113-114).

            For the first few years, methods of raising money for the sewing circle varied (Brunk 113-114).  Some of these methods included:  asking absent members to give a donation for each missed meeting, a donation of money from the Sunday eggs, and even “soliciting for papers and sale dinners” (Brunk 113-114).  Eventually, the ministers and bishops of the church asked the circle to limit raising money through charitable works only (Brunk 113-114).

            The Sewing Circle catered to the needs of those locally, across the nation, and the world (Brunk 113-114).  In 1916, the group raised money for the new Mt. Clinton Church, specifically to carpet the aisles (Brunk 113-114).  They also bought lamps for the Weavers Church basement (Brunk 113-114).  The act of making comforters was a trademark of the group, and when the Eastern Mennonite School moved to Park Woods, the Sewing Circle made them four comforters, in addition to helping clean the school (Brunk).  Other jobs included sewing for the men at Grottoes in the CPS era and for the Rockingham Memorial Hospital (Brunk 113-114).      

            The Sewing Circle mostly focused on missions; however, there were a lack of local mission stations at the time (Brunk 113-114).  As a result, the group found themselves sewing for organizations across the country (Brunk 113-114).  Some of these organizations included the Chicago Gospel Mission, the Fort Wayne Mission, and the West Liberty Orphan’s Home (Brunk 113-114).  They also had sewing projects for foreign relief (Brunk 113-114).  Once the local mission stations started up, the group poured their efforts into them as well (Brunk 113-114).  Harry Anthony Brunk, author of History of Mennonites in Virginia, Volume Two, writes:

      “Mrs. E.L. Grove wrote that calls had come from our mission stations in the mountains and from across the ocean.  ‘Hundreds of new  garments made especially for mission fields and a large amounts of used clothing besides hundreds of cakes of home-made soap and 1,000 cans of fruit and vegetables have been sent out from our circle’”      (Brunk 113-114).

            It wasn’t until after the fact that Susanna came to realize there had been some opposition among a few of the council members in regards to the creation of a women’s group (Brubaker).  Some members feared the group would become a center for gossip and that the women would be incapable of managing it (Brunk 113-114).  However, over time the Sewing Circle showed it could be a valuable asset to the church and in 1914 the Council recognized the Circle for all its hard work and valuable contributions to the church (Brunk 113-114). 

            Susanna Hartman Brunk died on October 12, 1913, near Harrisonburg, Virginia (“Gospel”).  Up until her death, Susanna had held the position as manager of the Sewing Circle (Brunk 113-114).  In honor of her life and ministry, the group offered this word of gratitude:

          “We the members of the Sister Mission Circle tender our heartfelt appreciation for the kind service and untiring efforts rendered by her…inasmuch as she was the founder and active in the organization of our circle that we by the help of God will endeavor to forward the work she so nobly begun and for which she so zealously lived”  (Brunk 113-114).                               

            Susanna Hartman Brunk’s deep love for God and the well being of the church was exemplified in her work as a deaconess.  She made great contributions to the Middle District, not only by performing her duties as a deaconess, but also by founding the Sewing Circle.  Susanna’s legacy lives on even today; she will forever be remembered as a woman of great faith and love, for the God she served and for all those around her.  Susanna, one of many deaconesses in the Middle District, took part in a religious tradition that would change the course of Mennonite history in Virginia. 


Brubaker, Shirley Yoder. Susanna Hartman Brunk Monolog. Manuscript.   

Brunk, Harry Anthony. History of Mennonites in Virginia, Volume Two. Verona: McClure Printing Company, Inc., 1972. Print.  

“Gospel Herald” Obituary: Vol. 6, Oct. 23, 1913

Menno Simons Historical Library at Eastern Mennonite University – J.D. Brunk File

Roberts, Scott S.  “John David Brunk, 1872 - 1926: His Life and Musical Contributions to the Mennonite Church.” Koinonia Mennonite Church. N.p. n.d. Web. 25 September 2012.

Betty Keener, a Virginia Mennonite Deaconness

by Katherine Mumaw, EMHS Junior History student, 2012

Elizabeth (Bettie) Brunk was born September 13, 1878 to David and Elizabeth (Hartman) Brunk. She grew up in the Shenandoah Valley, and attended Weavers Mennonite Church. In 1901 Bettie attended the Bible School at Bridgewater (Mennonites in Virginia1960). December of 1904 Bettie and H.B Keener, whom she had met while attending Weavers, married (Mennonites in Virginia1960). The Keeners were called to mission work in 1906 through a sermon given by George Brunk on Timothy 2:3(Mennonites in Virginia 1960). God did not however open the doors for mission until January of 1908. In August of 1908 there became a need for long term missionaries in West Virginia and the Keeners were asked to consider. It was decided that the Keeners would head to West Virginia but first her husband needed to be ordained as a minister (Mennonites in Virginia1960).

         Bettie Keener and her husband moved to West Virginia to do long term mission work in the spring of 1909. They soon introduced Young Peoples Meetings and revival services (Mennonites in Virginia1960). The Keeners soon found themselves overwhelmed with the needs of the community and requested help. Help did not come and the load soon became too much for the Keeners to bear. Then in 1912 the pressure became too much of H.B. Keener and he suffered from a nervous breakdown (Mennonites in Virginia1960).

       The Keeners moved back to the Valley due to health reasons. Before leaving the Bettie struggled with knowing whether leaving was in God’s plan or if leaving would betray God (Mennonites in Virginia1960). The needs of the people in West Virginia were greater than the Keeners ability to help. The church was also going through a time of change in the roles of women and the ideas of women. Many women were deciding that bonnets might be a thing of the past. In a letter that H.B wrote to his wife he informs her that one of her friends had not been attending church because her bonnet was “too big” and she couldn’t stand to wear a bonnet if it was too large (Mennonites in Virginia 1960). Bettie wrote back and said how disappointed she was in her friend and how hard she was to please with a bonnet. She also wrote about how she hoped that two other members of the church would not be tempted to stop wearing their bonnets and would help bring the “lost” friend back (Mennonites in Virginia 1960).

      Howard Keener believes that “Bettie Keener influenced the Mennonite Church in the valley because she spoke her mind and made her opinions clear”. She stood her ground when it came to the women in the church no longer wanting to wear coverings and for that reason influenced the Mennonite Church in the valley.

       Bettie was ordained as 1928 as a deaconess along with Pearl Suter (Lehman). According to Daniel B. Suter Pearl and Bettie were the last two deaconesses to be ordained (Lehman). Frances Suter Hartman and her brother Daniel remember their mother Pearl and Bettie being ordained at deaconesses (Lehman). Frances recalls that Pearl and Bettie were called up to the front at the end of the church service (Lehman). Both children remember the women being asked questions and then making vows similar to the vows made at a baptismal service (Lehman). The women proceeded to kneel and the bishop prayed, affirming their ordination (Lehman).

In 1967 Bettie died, age 88, at the home of her son Oliver Keener in Virginia. The funeral service took place as Weavers Mennonite Church, and she was buried at the Weavers Cemetery. 


Brunk, Henry. History of Mennonites in Virginia 1727-1900. Staunton, VA. McClure Printing Company, 1959. Print.

Brunk, Henry. History of Mennonites in Virginia 1900-1960.Verona, VA. McClure Printing Company, Inc., 1972. Print.

Diener, Gloria. People of Peace Connecting Threads of Faith and Experience. , Harrisonburg, VA. Virginia Mennonite Conference, 2010. Print

Good, E. Richard. Enlarging the Borders Virginia Mennonite Conference 150 Years of Expansion. United State. NA, NA. Print.

Lehman, Ruth. Deaconesses of the Middle District of Virginia Conference. Harrisonburg, VA. NA. 1989. Print.

Personal Interview with Howard Keener on September 28, 2012


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