Question: Did the Church ever have lady deacons? Deaconesses? Did they receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders?
Answer: Women have served the Church in various capacities since New Testament times. Sometimes their service was purely practical, looking after the domestic needs of the clergy and the local church. At times their service was more prayerful and spiritual in nature. The role of the deaconess, although sometimes similar to the consecrated widow or virgin, was to serve the needs of the woman of the church in matters where such service by a man would be unbecoming. The most obvious example of such service is in the baptism of adult female converts by total immersion and the baptismal anointing of the body with holy oils. The deaconesses also kept order among the women during divine services, saw to the charitable and educational needs of women and served as intermediaries between the church's male clergy and its women. The rise of infant Baptism and the decline of total immersion seem to have brought the decline of deaconesses as a special group, the other functions being assumed by nuns and lay women.
We learn that Deaconesses did not receive sacramental orders from an oblique reference in Canon xix of the fourth century Council of Nicaea (concerning the conversion of repentant deaconesses from the Paulianist heresy), and the Apostolic Constitutions: "the deaconess gives no blessing, she fulfills no function of priest or deacon."
The Apostolic Constitutions give the following form for the institution of a deaconess:
Those actually serving as deaconesses ought not to be confused with wives or mothers of deacons, who are sometimes referred to as "diacona," in much the same way as the women associated with a priest or bishop might be called "presbytera" or "episcopa."