April 18, 2018, Adrian, Michigan – Sister Rosemary (“Laurence Edward”) Ferguson, OP, who led the Adrian Dominican Sisters during the pivotal post-Vatican II years when ministerial religious life in the United States was transformed, died April 17, 2018, at the age of 92.
During her 10 years in office, from 1968 to 1978, Sister Rosemary and her General Council implemented the far-reaching acts of the “General Chapter of Renewal,” a legislative gathering of the Congregation convened by decree of the Second Vatican Council for the purpose of reviewing and renewing religious life. Elected by her Sisters at that 1968 Chapter, Sister Laurence Edward, 42, became the fifth Mother General of the Adrian Dominican Sisters, then numbering 2,400 members.
“Rosemary Ferguson is among the valiant religious leaders of the 20th century whose creative and faithful response to Vatican II renewed every aspect of our life and helped bring US Catholic Sisters into the wide array of ministries we see today, serving God’s people and planet,” said Patricia Siemen, OP, Prioress of the Congregation. “She led us through an incredibly exciting, painful, liberating, and tumultuous time with great love, enduring faith, inspiration, and a joyful spirit. Her great love and influence is imprinted in the hearts of every Sister.”
Sister Jeanne Burns, OP, who served on the General Council during both of Sister Rosemary’s terms in office, described her as “a charismatic leader,” who “did everything with grace and direction and good humor.” Sister Rosemary “gave sessions every Sunday morning where she would talk about the renewal and what was expected, and everybody loved those sessions, and they came in the hundreds,” Sister Jeanne said. “She was prepared for leadership in the new vision of the Church.”
While Prioress of the Adrian Dominican Sisters, Sister Rosemary played a significant national leadership role in US religious life, serving as a member of the National Board and Executive Committee of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), an association of leaders of US congregations then representing 160,000 Catholic Sisters. She chaired the Michigan and Indiana regional LCWR group (LCWR Region VII) and served on the LCWR liaison committees with the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Conference of Major Superiors of Men. In addition, Sister Rosemary served as Chair of the Dominican Leadership Conference, a national association comprised of leaders of US congregations of Dominicans, during this time.
“Rosemary navigated through the unknown and enabled others to navigate the unknown waters of that time,” said Sister Jeanne O’Laughlin, OP, who served on the General Council during Sister Rosemary’s second term. “What could have been devastating years ended up being the herald of change and of the new beginnings and the new possibilities that the world, the church, and women could have in their service as religious.”
Sister Carol Johannes, OP, who served as Novice Mistress during Sister Rosemary’s term and succeeded her as Prioress in 1978, said, “She was unhesitating in her trust in God and her trust in the community and her trust in the need to renew. I really think that nobody else in the whole Congregation was called upon as Rosemary was to let go of old forms of religious life and to let a new form of religious life emerge.”
Within a year or two after taking office, Mother Laurence Edward dropped the honorific “Mother” in favor of the more collegial, “Sister,” and reverted to her baptismal name, adopting the early Dominican title of “Prioress” in lieu of “Mother General.”
“Sister Rosemary was perfectly fitted to this call with her energy, vitality, youth and a trust in the Sisters that was extraordinary,” Sister Carol added. “Because of her own faith and courage, she was willing to allow the Holy Spirit to refashion the Congregation according to the norms of Vatican II.”
At the 1974 General Chapter, when Sister Rosemary was elected to serve a second term, the Congregation adopted an “option for the poor,” emphasizing the pursuit of social justice as an essential element of the Congregation’s Gospel commitment.
Numerous initiatives grew from that commitment, including the creation of the Congregation’s Portfolio Advisory Board, which for more than 40 years has played a national role in socially responsible investing. The Congregation’s work to promote peace, justice and the integrity of creation also evolved from that commitment and has found expression not only in other Congregational and collaborative efforts, but also in the individual ministerial commitments of hundreds of individual Sisters over the years.
“Rosemary was certainly the leader in that area and really wanted the Congregation to respond to the call of Vatican II to go where the needs were and help people to become self-sufficient, …inviting us to different areas [of ministry] where we had never been before,” said former Prioress Sister Attracta Kelly, OP, who presently directs the Congregation’s Immigration Assistance Office. “She was an outstanding woman – clearly a model for all of us on how to live the Dominican charism with joy.”
Born on a farm in Spaulding, Nebraska, on March 29, 1926, Sister Rosemary was the youngest of the 10 children of William and Mary Marcella (Sullivan) Ferguson. She lost her mother when she was 2 years old. Her father died when she was 12, two years after they had lost the family farm during the Depression and moved to Omaha. Sister Rosemary and her older sisters then moved to Chicago, where she met the Adrian Dominican Sisters while attending the Congregation’s Aquinas High School.
In May 1943, Rosemary entered the Adrian Dominican Congregation and was received into the novitiate in January 1944, taking the religious name Sister Laurence Edward. She taught elementary school for 10 years at the Congregation’s schools in West Palm Beach, Florida, and was principal of St. Kilian School in Chicago from 1955 to 1961. Returning to the Motherhouse in 1961, she was appointed Assistant Mistress of Postulants and, in 1965, became Mistress of Novices until her election as Mother General.
“I was blessed to have Rosemary as my novice director during the period of the renewal of religious life following Vatican II,” said Sister Donna Markham, OP, former Prioress and current President and CEO of Catholic Charities USA. “It seemed that as soon as a [Vatican II] document became available, Rosemary was intent upon our studying it.” During early morning novitiate classes, Sister Donna said Sister Rosemary conveyed unbounded energy and excitement. “An amazing mentor and intrepid leader, she solidified our communal unity during a time that could have proven quite divisive.”
After leaving office as Prioress, Sister Rosemary turned to pastoral ministry and served as a chaplain. Adding to her bachelor’s degree in English from Barry College (University) in Miami, Florida, and her master’s degree in English from Loyola University in Chicago, Sister Rosemary earned a doctorate in ministry from Aquinas Institute of Theology, Dubuque, Iowa, in 1979. She was certified as a chaplain, an associate supervisor, and advanced supervisor through the National Association of Catholic Chaplains.
From 1979 to 1982, Sister Rosemary was the Director of the Center for Pastoral Ministry in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, fostering the faith formation and theological studies of adult Catholics. She served as a chaplain at St. Luke Hospital, 1982 to 1985, and at St. Mary Medical Center, 1985 to 1986, both in Duluth, Minnesota.
Her final years in active ministry were spent developing and implementing a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program at St. Mary Medical Center, from 1986 to 1999. The program not only trained chaplains in CPE but also was innovative in providing CPE training to the medical staff at St. Mary’s.
Sister Rosemary “challenged her students and all who were in the Chaplaincy Department to use their gifts and grow beyond the status quo,” recalled Benedictine Sister Sue Fortier, OSB, a colleague at St. Mary’s and a long-time friend. The CPE program “had a ripple effect that went beyond St. Mary’s. Because of Rosemary, families, communities, churches of all denominations and even businesses in Duluth and beyond were challenged and invited to participate in a pastoral arena that called for change and renewal.”
Sister Rosemary retired to the Dominican Life Center in Adrian in 1999, serving on the boards of the Congregation-sponsored St. Rose Dominican Hospitals in Henderson, Nevada, and of the newly established Hospice of Lenawee, in Adrian, Michigan. To the end, she remained passionate about social justice concerns and wholly engaged in the life of her beloved Congregation.
In the 2000s, she wrote:
“When our voices are strong, and clear and out there, we are at our truest as a Dominican Congregation in the Church…. Tomorrow may lead us to new depths, other heights –
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
(God’s Grandeur by Gerard Manley Hopkins)”
A Vigil Service will be held at 7:00 p.m. April 22, 2018, in St. Catherine Chapel on the campus of the Adrian Dominican Sisters, 1257 E. Siena Heights Drive, Adrian, Michigan. The Funeral Mass will be held at 10:30 a.m. April 23, 2018, also in St. Catherine Chapel, followed by the Rite of Committal (burial) in the Congregation Cemetery.
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Left: Sister Rosemary Ferguson, right, reads from the history of the Dominican Congregation of Our Lady of Remedies, which merged with the Adrian Dominican Congregation in 2011, at a ritual for the dedication of a marker for deceased Sisters from the Chapter of Our Lady of Remedies in September 2017. Also shown, from left, are Sisters Zenaida Nacpil, Chapter Prioress of the Remedies Chapter; Sister Patricia Siemen, Prioress of the Congregation; and Sister Kathleen Schanz. Right: Former Prioresses gathered for a group shot during the 2016 General Chapter, during which Sister Patricia Siemen was elected Prioress. The former Prioresses are, from left, Sisters Rosemary Ferguson, Carol Johannes, Nadine Foley, Patricia Walter, Janet Capone, Donna Markham, and Attracta Kelly.
June 23, 2015, Coral Gables, Florida – Sister Jeanne O’Laughlin, OP, and her guests received “red carpet treatment” May 19 during a premiere showing of Portraits of Inspiration: The Power Nun, featuring her life’s work in education and in humanitarian causes.
The film – shown before a full house in the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables – is the first in a new series of inspirational films, produced by Scherley Busch, founder of Florida Women of Achievement (FWA). “Through Portraits of inspiration, we hope to inspire the next generation of female leaders and achievers in Florida,” Ms. Busch said. Watch the trailer.
The press release announcing the premiere of the film describes Sister Jeanne as “one who broke down barriers in her own unique way and was one of the first females in Florida to be accepted into exclusive boardrooms during the Women’s Movement.”
Sister Jeanne, President Emerita of Barry University in Miami Shores, also gained some recognition in the 1990s when she served as a mediator in the international custody dispute over Elian Gonzalez. Elian’s mother and boyfriend had taken Elian with them when they fled from Cuba. His mother died in the process, and his father, still in Cuba, fought for and gained custody of his son.
The 56-minute film is “the story of how God could take a motherless child, a very lowly human being, and, through his graces and gift, could do something perhaps to make the world a little bit better,” Sister Jeanne said. “I think the struggle is trying to make the brief flash of your life as bright as it can be by making some little differences in as many lives and as many ways as you can.”
Formerly the Chair of the Board of FWA, Sister Jeanne said her goal has always been to “raise up other women. Helping women to be who they are meant to be has been something that I really felt I was in a position to do. I’d open the doors, but they would go through them.”