This new oil painting of Helenor Alter Davisson was unveiled during the service.

RENSSELAER, Ind. – More than 125 people interested in the history of the Indiana Conference participated Sunday afternoon, Aug. 24, in the dedication of a United Methodist Historic Site near Rensselaer to commemorate the 148th anniversary of the first woman ordained in the American Methodist tradition. Her name was the Rev. Helenor M. Alter Davisson and the sites dedicated are collectively known as the Helenor M. Alter Davisson Cluster.

On August 24, 1866, Davisson became the first woman to be ordained a deacon in the former Methodist Protestant Church, a predecessor of The United Methodist Church in the United States. She was ordained in Jasper County near Rensselaer and was the daughter of an early Methodist Circuit Rider.

Also documented were the five sites that remain intact, including:

  • Helenor’s grave at Sandridge Cemetery in Barkley Township;
  • The large stone house on the Alter farm in Carpenter Alter Davisson Township;
  • The graves of the Rev. John Alter and other family members, also on the Alter farm;
  • The former Methodist Protestant church in Rensselaer (now the museum of the Jasper County Historical Society); and
  • The Rosebud Schoolhouse, once a preaching point on the Grand Prairie circuit, which has now been moved to the county fairgrounds and is preserved by the Jasper County Historical Society.

Bishop Mike Coyner led the dedication sponsored by the Indiana Conference Commission on Archives and History during a special worship service at the Brushwood United Methodist Church seven miles north of Rensselaer on U.S. Highway 231 and near Helenor’s grave site where a historic site marker was placed.

During his remarks, Coyner lifted up the importance of the role of a Deacon as being a servant. He said he didn’t want Elders to neglect this role and explained that before the 1996 General Conference, the Order of Deacon was an order of probationary (now called provisional) membership in the annual conference toward the Order of Elder. He also commented that Alter Davisson must have had “amazing leadership skills” for at this time in history, “it was unusual for women to be leaders in the church” and that “God has always worked through women.”

The service was led by Richard Stowe of the conference’s Commission on Archives and History.

The marker came from the General Commission on Archives and History, based in Madison, N.J., and designates the cluster as United Methodist Historic Site No. 487.

Also during the celebration, a new oil painting of Davisson was unveiled. It was commissioned by the Rev. Christopher Shoemaker and is based on the only known photograph of her. The portrait will reside in the World Methodist Council Museum at Lake Junaluska, N.C.

A gallery of photos from the event is available online at