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.
Click here to view Sister Rosemary's obituary
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.
Sister Rosemary Ferguson, then Sister Laurence Edward, stood quietly in Madden Hall while the newest postulants lined up to receive their veils from Mother Mary Gerald Barry on June 26, 1961. As I observed her standing quietly beside us, I recalled the words of my Rosarian classmate who once told me, “Sister Laurence Edward was my first grade teacher and she had the most beautiful and kind brown eyes.” And indeed, she did.I didn’t realize at that moment that her arrival in Adrian as the new Assistant Mistress of Postulants had shortly preceded our own, nor that she would be an integral part of my life throughout my entire vowed membership in the congregation. When we were postulants, we found her to be a calm, soothing influence compared to her vociferous counterpart, the Mistress of Postulants. She was soft-spoken, tender in her corrections of our faults, and deeply spiritual in her approach to our development as Adrian Dominicans.Sister Laurence Edward also did her best to teach us graciousness and poise. There were the little things: how we walked up and down the stairs (one at a time, skirts held appropriately), how to maintain a centered, calm demeanor, and how to speak graciously. At one point, in an effort to reduce our use of "slang," there were little signs throughout the postulate saying: “OK must go!” Unfortunately, these appeared about the time that the Filipina postulants arrived for their formation – and “OK” was one of the few English words/phrases that they knew. Sister also taught us the utmost details in domestic upkeep, including ridding the postulate floors of a decades-old build-up of wax along the baseboards. We were told not to refer to “dirty laundry”; instead we should call it “soiled laundry.” This eventually led to an amusing exchange between Sister and a novice in the Perpetual Help Crowd. She and a group of novices were gathered on the “Village Green” behind the Motherhouse during evening recreation. Apparently out of nowhere, a large dog ran toward Sister and tried to jump on her. “Get away, you dirty dog!” she exclaimed, to which the novice teasingly said, “Uh, Sister, “it’s a ‘soiled dog'.” I remember kneeling before Sister and asking for permission to receive the habit; a request that she confirmed. As novices, we didn’t see too much of her, cloistered as we were with Sisters Patrick Jerome and Clarita Marie. We did take a wonderful literature course from Sister Laurence Edward during our novitiate, though sadly, we didn’t have time to read the books that would have enriched her instruction.It was some time before I saw Sister again. After an extended novitiate, I took my first vows and went out on mission. Most of us young sisters went back to Adrian during the summer to continue working on our undergraduate degrees. And with summers in Adrian, came the practice of “Sunday Instructions.” We gathered in the college auditorium, Walsh Hall, each Sunday morning for lessons in prayer and religious life from the Mistress of Novices. Prior to 1965, these instructions were provided by Sister Patrick Jerome (Mary) Mullins. In 1965, Sister Laurence Edward became Director of Novices and stepped into the role of presenting Sunday Instructions. We all gleaned so much from those hour-long sessions, as she urged us to be fully engaged in the process of renewal that was enveloping religious life. It was heady material and most exciting. One Sunday, Sister delivered what was then perceived as an astonishing message. In that session, she bemoaned the customs the congregation practiced when a Sister left the community. In those days, anyone who left the Congregation typically did so in an isolated environment. The departing woman was told to have no contact with any of the Sisters in the community; part of our training as young religious included the interdict that we were never to have contact with women who left the community. Sister proclaimed that this was a terrible way to treat women who have served the church and congregation and moreover those who were continuing to serve the church as lay women. We were no longer forbidden to be in contact with former sisters; in fact, we were encouraged to support them however we could. I was surprised and elated with this change of viewpoint. It just made so much sense.During her term as Director of Novices, those were my only contacts with her. I was thrilled to be in Adrian during the summer of 1968 when she was elected Mother General. I was delighted with this turn of events and I remember seeing her outside the door of what the Mother General’s office was then (it is now part of the History exhibit) looking very lonely. I hurried toward her to congratulate her on her election.It wasn’t until the summer of 1969 that I had the opportunity to spend any time in Mother Laurence Edward’s presence. I was now part of another crowd of young professed Sisters. (In today’s lingo, one would say “It’s complicated.”) In a “first” for the congregation, we were making a 30-day retreat in preparation for final vows. We traveled to Oxley, Canada to Holy Family Retreat Center where – to varying degrees – we engaged in the teachings of a Jesuit priest and spent time in prayer, reflection, personal growth and restfulness. As the retreat was ending, we were excited that Sister Rosemary, as she was now known, was coming to spend the evening with us. Rooms were scarce at the center, so I, as the most senior in the crowd with the most convenient room, prepared it for her overnight stay; I doubled up with another sister for the night. After dinner and before liturgy, we all gathered on the grassy lawn in front of chapel. Sister had invited Fr. Kenneth Untener (the future Bishop of Saginaw) to accompany her. We sat quietly expecting that she would talk about plans for our final profession ceremony. Would it be here in Oxley or would we go back to Adrian?Sister Rosemary did have something to say about final profession, but not what we anticipated. The General Council decided that the practice of group final profession would be discontinued. Each Sister would petition for final vows individually, a process that could begin sometime after January 1, 1970. For a moment we sat in stunned silence. Then several sisters angrily protested Rosemary’s message. A strange mix of emotions swept over me – most of all, sympathy for Rosemary as she faced the vociferous disappointment of some of the sisters. I finally spoke up: “Sisters, I truly understand how difficult this is for you. You all know that I have faced this disappointment many times in my religious life. As disheartening as it is, I believe that Mother and the Council made this decision after much prayer and discernment. It isn’t easy for any of us, but we need to support Mother in this resolution. Anger and frustration won’t bring us closer to our final profession. Prayer and reflection will help us get through this.”Father Untener nodded in agreement and Sister Rosemary looked over to me and quietly said “Thank you, Sister.”Over the next several years, Rosemary fearlessly led us through the remarkable changes brought about by Vatican II and the 1968 Chapter of Renewal. Her vision and leadership fostered our individual quests for renewal and the demands that it made upon us. We were energized by her focus and extraordinarily deep faith as we moved forward into the tumultuous decade of the 1970’s.Soon it was time for another Chapter. It was 1974 and I worked in Blissfield, MI – just a few miles from the Motherhouse and the Chapter delegation. I volunteered to work in the secretarial pool every afternoon and evening. The chapter delegates generated reams of documents which after transcription had to be printed and duplicated for distribution to all involved with Chapter. (They called me the "Queen of the Xerox machine." Sister Rosemary was elected to serve a second term, which was exciting and exhilarating. Under her leadership, the Adrian Dominican Sisters would remain at the forefront of richly renewed religious life.My contacts with Rosemary were renewed in 1976 when she helped me with the tortuous process of withdrawal from the community. Her letters were filled with loving support. Her undying belief in the good that former members of the congregation could accomplish was clear in these words: “I believe our sisters who leave the Congregation could be among the most effective apostles of the laity in transmitting the message and values of Vatican II because of their experiences as religious women through these same changes. So, I encourage you with all my heart to set that goal now . . ..”Throughout the decades since then, I maintained rich friendships with many Adrian Dominican Sisters. It was not until she retired to the Dominican Life Center that I had the opportunity for brief visits with Rosemary during my visits to Adrian. It was always enriching to spend a few moments with her. Rosemary was present when I was welcomed as an Associate in 2016 and as we exchanged greetings, she chuckled and said, “You never really left us at all.” What a wonderfully open-hearted and loving way to welcome me “home” again.Though I shall miss her greatly, I don’t doubt for a minute that she is looking down on us with unending love and care.
Sister Rosemary was a Beautiful lady who was Loved by so many including myself .I always enjoy the talks we had together and will never forget the wisdom she shared with me . Fly High Sister Rosemary you have earn your Wings.
I knew very Little, Sister Rosemary Ferguson OP.She was always a great person. Full of faith that brings in a difficult moments of change the peace neccesary to turn seeing the needs of the moment.Thank You.Sister Rosemary Ferguson.Thank You.Descansa en Paz.You always brings the best of you.
Sister Rosemary was a wonderful lady! Her beautiful smile and quick wit would always make me smile. I feel blessed to have known you S. Rosemary and you will be missed my friend!
I entered the Dominican Order from New Mexico in 1974. A few weeks later Rosemary gave us a very moving presentation at Weber Center. Her ability to use humor as a way of enabling a difficult situation to become something Holy was remarkable. Her dynamic embrace of life gave witness to her fearlessness. Over the years she gave me tips about how to incorporate those attributes into my life. I was grateful that I was in Adrian for retreat during Holy Week because I participated in her anointing ceremony. We kissed each other goodbye at that time. Vaya Con Dios, Rosemary.