Deaconess Ruth Byllesby

“You can go to our church and see people who are well off now, whom the Deaconess fed, helped clothe, and arranged for operations. She was a saint.”

Deaconess Ruth Byllesby served Christ Church from 1927 to 1943. Born in 1865 in Erie, Pennsylvania, one of six children and the daughter of an Episcopal priest, she found her calling in the Deaconess Movement of the Episcopal Church. At the time, Deaconesses were “set apart,” for work in the church including education, serving the poor, and caring for the sick. Trained at St. Faith’s School for Deaconesses in New York,  she had worked at various churches in the North for 25 years before coming to Augusta.

Deaconess Byllesby had visited Augusta several times with her family during the winter months, which was a common practice at the time among residents of the Northern states who would vacation in Augusta to escape harsh winters. During those visits she became acquainted with the Harrisburg neighborhood and Christ Church. Two of her cousins were interested in outreach ministries and endowed a fund for outreach (known then as “settlement work”) with their cousin, Ruth Byllesby in charge. The Deaconess was to choose where she would serve, and she chose Christ Church.

Deaconess Byllesby was so concerned with the conditions in the mill village of Harrisburg that she chose to spend the rest of her career at Christ Church to better the conditions among the residents there. Shortly after coming to Christ Church the Great Depression hit Augusta and the demand for her services grew. Harrisburg had always been a poor neighborhood dependent on the local textile mills, and the Depression did not make things easier. The Deaconess moved into the Christ Church rectory, which adjoined the church, and quickly renamed it as “Neighborhood House.” Residents of the Harrisburg neighborhood came to know the Neighborhood House as the place you went to for help.

Christ Church circa 1936 The Neighborhood House is to the right, and Deaconess’ car in the driveway.

The Deaconess helped many a family through the Depression. She provided coal, food, and milk money for neighborhood children. She supervised Sunday School at Christ Church to over 200 children every Sunday. She started a young mothers club, and was particularly concerned that girls receive a strong education. She was also a relentless advocate for child labor legislation to protect the children of Harrisburg. Her services were available to anyone. Her only requirement for receiving aid was that you join and/or become active in a church of your choice.

Deaconess Byllesby retired in 1943. Bishop Barnwell, in his address of 1943, noted that “the retirement of the Deaconess was a matter of deep personal regret to all of us. The Diocese of Georgia never had a more faithful nor a more useful servant.” Deaconess Byllesby moved to Connecticut to live with her sister. She died in 1959.

Deaconess Byllesby’s legacy lives on at Christ Church. The endowment established by her cousins continues in the form of the Byllesby Fund, which funds the outreach ministries of Christ Church including the Soup Kitchen and Food Pantry. These vital ministries serve thousands of meals every year and help the hungry of all ages.

The Reverend Harry Maloney, Rector of Christ Church in 1978, wrote the following:

“I am amazed how she changed people and became  a lasting influence in their lives. I am told she shared all she had of material wealth whatever that amounted to, with the people she ministered to but also she gave of herself so willingly and with so much love. It was this great love and compassion for people that caused her to be remembered.”

Many people have testified to the saint-like qualities of Deaconess Byllesby. It is anticipated that on April 15, 2012, in recognition of the Deaconess’ service to Christ Church and Augusta, she will be proclaimed a local saint by the Bishop of Georgia at a service at Christ Church, with the goal of broader recognition at a later time. Her legacy of helping the poor, hungry and the lost is a shining example to all who came after her, bringing the consolation of the Gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit to Harrisburg and Augusta.