1890, the year Diakonhjemmet was founded, also saw the publication of Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun's famous novel, Hunger. The novel's famished protagonist tries to eke out a living in Kristiania, the Norwegian capital. At the time, the city was bursting with commercial vigour and optimism, but also with overcrowded slum areas, appalling sanitary conditions, tuberculosis, drunkenness and working-class desperation.
Moved by the plight of the poor, leading figures in the grassroots Christian revival movement felt they had to take action. The focal point of the revivals, which flourished throughout Norway in the 19th century, was the personal, inner conversion experience. But the movement also harboured a strong concern for people suffering from poverty, alcoholism and disease.
The founder of Diakonhjemmet, Hartvig Halvorsen, was a newspaper editor and pastor from the revivalist heartland of southwestern Norway. He envisioned a powerhouse that would mobilize Christian men to serve people in need in an organized manner. The name Diakonhjemmet means "the home of the deacons". According to Halvorsen, the institution combined two ambitions – one local, the other with a more national scope:
In this way, Diakonhjemmet would provide society and church congregations with a steady supply of energetic and qualified young men, pioneering in organized care for people in need. They would fill a special need in areas where it was not deemed proper for women to work: in prisons, homes for alcoholics and orphanages for boys.
In the new institution, Hartvig Halvorsen and the other founding fathers saw a chance to revive "the most enchanting feature" of the 1st-century Christian Church: its concern for people in need, be they lepers, orphans, widows or beggars. From the era of the first congregations in Jerusalem and Asia Minor, Halvorsen derived the concept of diakonia (Greek for "service") as an imperative for any Christian church. He and his co-founders also revived the idea of appointing and equipping certain church members, deacons, to lead and mobilize the efforts of the church in this field.
The Norwegians found their more immediate model institutions in mid-19th-century Germany, where a succession of charities had sprung up as a result of a spiritual renaissance for diakonia. Even close by, in the Norwegian capital, they found a vibrant, feminine example, called Diakonissehuset Lovisenberg. The institution, founded by nursing pioneer Cathinka Guldberg, was a college and hospital for deaconesses. Here, young women were trained in the same spirit of service and charity.
Diakonhjemmet first opened its doors on 21 April 1890, only seven months after the idea was first introduced. A house was rented in the Lindern area of Kristiania (Oslo). A staff of three persons, including Halvorsen, moved in with the first class of ten prospective deacons. For three years they ran a home for 60 poor, elderly men. The operation was funded mainly by the municipality.
By 1893, Halvorsen realized that the candidates needed a more professional education in the treatment of diseases, supervised by medical doctors. With a minimum of restructuring, Diakonhjemmet Hospital was established. Its capacity was 30 beds, and the patients came from the less destitute classes, as they had to foot their own bills.
Later that year, the founders were able to buy the spacious farm estate of Steinerud, northwest of the city centre. By 1900, after intensive rounds of fundraising and construction, the new Diakonhjemmet Hospital and College compound was inaugurated in the presence of many prominent citizens. Costs were to be covered mainly by fees paid by patients, especially the well-to-do patients who were treated in the psychiatric ward. It was also hoped that there would be substantial donations, along with the profits from a downtown pension run by the deacons.
But the euphoria was short-lived. A severe economic recession hit Kristiania at the turn of the century. Many banks collapsed and unemployment skyrocketed. The new institution found itself at a critical juncture. The flow of donations dwindled. To avoid bankruptcy the leaders at Diakonhjemmet ordered drastic spending cuts, down to the very nibs of the pens. They took up personal loans and even waived their rightful wages to keep the creditors at arm's length. Slowly, over the course of many years, the rescue operation brought the hospital’s finances back in the black.
The founders had hoped that Diakonhjemmet would become an important cause for the lay revival movement and its impressive fundraising capacity. Prominent names in the movement, however, gradually moved in other directions. The legendary Dr. Ole Hallesby, for example, directed the movement's efforts towards the establishment of private, Christian teaching colleges and schools. Getting the Lutheran State Church to recognize a new vocation, that of the deacon, turned out to be a slow, uphill struggle. A church founded on the primacy of God's Word seemed reluctant to condone this kind of emphasis on faith as hands-on service for people in need.
In the fledgling public welfare system of Norway, however, the skills of the deacon were in demand. In the course of their five years at Diakonhjemmet, the deacons were trained extensively in nursing, pastoral care, management and social work. They became pioneers in the development of welfare institutions and systems, including homes for the elderly, epileptics and the mentally handicapped.
The situation seemed paradoxical. While the church was reluctant to hire deacons, the secular arena provided ample opportunities for these young men. The identity of the institution as the servant of its mother church was at stake. The founders had envisioned Diakonhjemmet as an independent and pioneering entity. It was meant to be free to fight for its causes in its own way, without having to conform to the demands of the secular state. But with the employment situation in mind the leaders at Diakonhjemmet opted for the relative security of public finances - and standards. At many turns, curricula were altered to satisfy the requirements for public certificates - e.g. in nursing. Another early example was the hiring of female nurses to staff certain wards of Diakonhjemmet Hospital, an institution originally supposed to be run by men and for men. In return, the municipality contracted Diakonhjemmet to serve as a general hospital for the neighbouring area.
Until around 1970, Diakonhjemmet had many of the characteristics of a Lutheran version of a monastery.
For the young students, every hour of the day, week and year was devoted to the total experience of becoming a diakon. The forstander (director), the patriarchal figure at the head of the deacon's home, was responsible for their training. Students who spent weeks and months as trainees in hospitals and other institutions around the country were expected to "come home to Diakonhjemmet" for Christmas, to celebrate the holiday with their spiritual family. As part of the graduation process the candidates were ordained by their forstander at a solemn ceremony in the local church in Oslo, before taking up their posts around the country. The graduates were enrolled in the Broderforbundet ("the Community of the Brethren"), and maintained contact with each other through this network. The Broderforbundet later evolved into a more conventional labour union for deaconal workers. Quite a few of the brothers served abroad, in the Seamen's Mission, as missionaries in Asia and Africa, or as medics in UN peacekeeping missions in regions such as Gaza or Congo.
The hospital wards were the main training grounds for the candidates. But gradually the hospital emerged as an important part of the public health services of Oslo. The city eventually decided to cover most of the expenses of the hospital. In the period from 1930 to 1960 the size and functions of the 100-bed hospital were basically unchanged. By 1963, however, every inch of available space in the old buildings was in use. In the following decades a number of new buildings were added in order to provide treatment facilities and staff housing. At the College, a new wing was added to accommodate a larger student body, e.g. at the School of Social Work (established 1968). Starting in 1982 Diakonhjemmet Hospital was assigned responsibility for hospital services in one of the four "health service sectors" in Oslo.
The generation of the student revolts in 1968 spawned new ideas of what diakonia was all about. These young people were critical of the ideal of the deacon as a humble, self-effacing figure, doing his quiet works of charity to relieve individual suffering. The School of Social Work devised an approach inspired by the social sciences. Emphasis was shifted towards analysing and redressing the structural causes of poverty and marginalization. The deacon was to act more as an agent of social justice. Faculty and management with a more conservative point of view were dismayed. They felt that the spiritual identity of Diakonhjemmet was at risk, as was its position in the Church of Norway. An ideological struggle ensued, attracting wide media coverage and mobilizing supporting factions on both sides. The conflict centred specifically on issues such as abortion and recruitment policy. A court case over the legality of College recruitment policy was taken all the way to the Supreme Court. In its final 1984 ruling, the Supreme Court confirmed the institution's right to question prospective employees about their religious beliefs.
A more conciliatory atmosphere prevailed in the College during the 1980s. New areas were added to the activities at Diakonhjemmet. Among these was the Centre for Partnership in Development, specializing in aid partnerships with people and institutions in the Third World.
During the 1980s the hospital was enlarged, and new wings were built to house a rheumatology ward and a unit for post-surgical and intensive care. The pace of change became more rapid in the 1990s. That decade saw a series of new developments and a sharp escalation of both treatment capacity and the number of staff, patients and students. The College established new part-time courses of study, including Internet-based options in nursing studies. In cooperation with the University of Oslo, the College established a Master's Degree in diaconal studies. The hospital gained around-the-clock emergency facilities. In 1998 the municipality of Oslo asked Diakonhjemmet to take over several well-established secular psychiatric institutions as part of its total treatment capacity.
By its 110th anniversary, Diakonhjemmet had become one of the largest private educational and health-related institutions in Norway. The annual figures would have astonished the founding fathers: 9000 discharged patients, 40 000 consultations with day care patients, a combined hospital and college staff of nearly 1500 persons, and a college enrolling the equivalent of more than 1000 full-time students.
Or, considering their high expectations, perhaps they would not have been surprised at all.
Diakonhjemmet is a private non-profit foundation within the Church of Norway. It was established in 1890.
Its object is to promote and develop diaconal activity in the church and society at large.
Diakonhjemmet offers health, care and education services in close cooperation with the public sector.
The foundation's motto is ‘Engaged in people’.
Its vision is ‘Innovator serving our neighbour’.
The whole foundation’s total turnover, including the hospital, care, education, pharmacy and property areas, amounted to NOK 2.4 billion in 2016.
Diakonhjemmet has a total of 2,500 employees and 3,500 students.
Local hospital for around 137,000 of Oslo’s inhabitants, providing somatic and mental health care and alcohol and substance abuse treatment.
Operates on assignment from the public sector.
It is the National Advisory Unit on Rehabilitation in Rheumatology and it conducts extensive research. The rheumatological department was recognised as a Centre of Excellence in 2008.
Builds up and develops health, social and welfare services in the primary health service and the municipal welfare service.
Runs Sagenehjemmet nursing home, which has 71 residents, two kindergartens with a total of 115 children, the counselling centre Dialog – and, from autumn 2017, it will also run Nordberghjemmet nursing home.
Emphasizes developing services for people in vulnerable situations, low-threshold services and solutions for people who are not covered by standard services.
VID Specialized University is the result of a merger between five university colleges.
It has around 50 different study programmes at bachelor’s, master’s and PhD level in health and social subjects, theology, diakonia and management.
Has a total of around 3,500 students distributed between the campuses in Oslo, Sandnes, Stavanger and Bergen.
The hospital pharmacy supplies pharmaceuticals and pharmaceutical services to the hospital and other health institutions.
Leading pharmacy in clinical pharmacy and advisory services in cooperation with the hospital.
Promotes patient safety through guidance and dialogue with patients.
Operation, management and development of Diakonhjemmet’s properties.
A total of 90,000 square metres of property – buildings for Diakonhjemmet's activities and residential property for rent, including 111 bedsits and 173 apartments.
Diakonhjemmet also has a beautiful, large park on its 32-acre property.
The project Diakonhjemmet hage aims to develop the property to facilitate new and innovative health, care and education services.