Rosemary Ferguson, former Dominican prioress during post-Vatican II era, dies at 92

Adrian Dominican Sr. Rosemary Ferguson in 1993 (Courtesy of the Adrian Dominican Sisters)

Adrian Dominican Sr. Rosemary Ferguson, who led her community through the renewal of the Second Vatican Council, died April 17. She was 92.

Ferguson was elected mother general in 1968, and she and her leadership team were tasked with implementing the far-reaching changes called for by the community's General Chapter of Renewal. There were 2,400 Adrian Dominican Sisters when she was elected.

"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 U.S. Catholic Sisters into the wide array of ministries we see today, serving God's people and planet," Sr. Patricia Siemen, the congregation's current prioress, said in a statement. "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."

While prioress, Ferguson served as a member of the national board and executive committee of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, chaired 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, according to a press release from the Dominicans. She served as chair of the Dominican Leadership Conference, a national association of leaders of Dominican congregations in the United States.

The changes Ferguson oversaw were personal as well as communal: Ferguson entered the congregation in 1943 and later took the religious name Sr. Laurence Edward. But in office, she reverted to her baptismal name, used "Sister" instead of the honorific "Mother," and changed the title from mother general to prioress.

Adrian Dominican Sr. Rosemary Ferguson in the summer of 1943, shortly after entering her community, at the age of 17 (Courtesy of the Adrian Dominican Sisters)

"Rosemary navigated through the unknown and enabled others to navigate the unknown waters of that time," Sr. Jeanne O'Laughlin, who served on the general council during Ferguson's second term, said in a statement. "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."

Among the changes Ferguson oversaw was the adoption of "an option for the poor," making social justice part of its core mission, in 1974, when she was elected to a second term. That commitment led to decades of social justice work by the community, including responsible investing initiatives and work for peace, justice and protection of the environment.

"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," Sr. Carol Johannes, a novice mistress under Ferguson, who followed her as prioress in 1978, said in a statement. "Sister Rosemary was perfectly fitted to this call with her energy, vitality, youth and a trust in the Sisters that was extraordinary. 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."

Born March 29, 1926, in Spaulding, Nebraska, Ferguson had a childhood marked by loss: Her mother died when Ferguson was 2, the family lost its farm during the Depression, and her father died when Ferguson was 12.

Ferguson and her older sisters — she was the youngest of 10 children — then moved to Chicago, where she was taught by Adrian Dominican Sisters.

After joining the order, she taught elementary school for a decade, was a school principal for six years, then returned to the motherhouse in 1961 to lead the community's novices until her election in 1968. Ferguson held bachelor's and master's degrees in English, and after leaving leadership earned a doctorate in ministry from the Aquinas Institute of Theology. She was the director of the Center for Pastoral Ministry in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, and a hospital chaplain. Later, she developed and implemented a clinical pastoral education program, which trained both hospital chaplains and medical staff. She retired from active ministry in 1999.

"I was blessed to have Rosemary as my novice director during the period of the renewal of religious life following Vatican II," Sr. Donna Markham, former prioress and current president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, said in a statement. "It seemed that as soon as a [Vatican II] document became available, Rosemary was intent upon our studying it."

Markham and many others said Ferguson's leadership made the difference during renewal.

"An amazing mentor and intrepid leader, she solidified our communal unity during a time that could have proven quite divisive," Markham wrote.

Adrian Dominican Sr. Rosemary Ferguson died April 17, 2018, at the age of 92. (Courtesy of the Adrian Dominican Sisters)

A vigil service for Ferguson will be the evening of April 22 in the St. Catherine Chapel on the community's campus, with the funeral Mass the next morning and burial in the congregation cemetery.

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. His email address is dstockman@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.]

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