Deaconess Harriet Bedell was born in New York in 1875. She was trained as a schoolteacher but was inspired several years later by an Episcopalian missionary who spoke at her church describing the many needs of missionary work. In 1906 she applied to, and was accepted by, the New York Training School for Deaconesses. After her training she was sent to a Oklahoman Misson for the Cheyenne Indians, and later to Alaska to help the Native Alaskan people. Bendell worked tirelessly for the Native people of America and Alaska; she cared for the sick and the poor, organized social services for the tribe, and provided education for the women and children. However, the Great Depression resulted in a drastic funding cut to the project and the boarding school she opened for Native people closed.
In 1932 Bedell was invited to visit a Seminole Indian reservation in southern Florida. She was so appalled by their living conditions that she used her own salary to reopen a mission among the Indians. She immediately began campaigning to improve the quality of life among the Mikasuki-Seminole Indians. As she had done in Oklahoma and Alaska, Deaconess Bedell lived and worked with the Seminoles, she did not stop at merely teaching them.
Bedell did not try to force American ideal on the Native people, rather she sought to revive doll making and basket weaving skills which had become nearly extinct. She also encouraged the women to include their intricate designs of patchwork into clothing articles to be sold. The sales from Mission store provided much needed income for the Seminoles. Much in the same vein, she encouraged health and education rather than religious conversion. She won the respect of indigenous people through her compassion and her respect of their way of life and beliefs She truly valued the Seminoles as human beings and not simply people to convert. Her close relationship with the tribe reflects this level of mutual respect.
She faithfully served in the Everglades from 1933 to 1960 Hurricane Donna forced her to retire at the age of 85. The diocese of Southwest Florida remembers Deaconess Harriet Bedell by celebrating Harriet Bedell Day on January 8, the anniversary of her death.
For more information:
Ames, Elizabeth Scott, The Deaconess of the Everglades. 1995: Cortland Press, Cortland, NY (Phil Fisher illustrations).
Hartley, William & Ellen, A Woman Set Apart. 1963: Dodd, Mead & Company, New York, NY (definitive biography of Harriet Bedell).