Williamsville Franciscan sister shares ministry with elderly

by KIMBERLEE SABSHIN
Wed, Dec 9th 2015 03:00 pm
Staff Reporter
Sister Marianne Ferguson, OSF, devotes her time to serving Catholic residents living in non-denominational homes for the elderly. (Patrick McPartland/Staff Photographer)
Sister Marianne Ferguson, OSF, devotes her time to serving Catholic residents living in non-denominational homes for the elderly. (Patrick McPartland/Staff Photographer)

Sister Marianne Ferguson is a retired sister of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities in Williamsville. A native of the Buffalo area, she attended elementary school at St. Margaret School in North Buffalo and graduated from Bennett High School in Buffalo. Although she no longer received religious education in her public high school, she remained active in her faith by attending Mass and religious education classes at the nearby St. Joseph University Church in Buffalo.

Sister Marianne furthered her education at Buffalo State College, where she received her undergraduate degree. Although she was active in the college's Newman Center Campus ministry program, she was disappointed that there were no religion classes offered at Buffalo State.

"It always bothered me that there were no opportunities to learn about the various religions, even though there were so many Catholics and other students preparing to teach children," Sister Marianne said.

"My interest in religious education motivated me, after college, to enter the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of the Divine Child, whose mission was to teach religion to children at public schools," she said. "I received a theology degree from St. Bonaventure University and Regina Mundi Pontifical University in Rome, Italy, to prepare me for the formation ministry of the young sisters in my religious community."

Since there was such a large Catholic and Christian student body at Buffalo State, Sister Marianne's desire was to teach religion at the college. She began by teaching theology classes at the Newman Center at Buffalo State, where she ministered as the first female campus minister in New York state.

In 1977, Sister Marianne began to realize her dream of teaching religion classes on a part-time basis in the philosophy department at Buffalo State. However, it was necessary for her to obtain a doctorate in order to teach full time, so she graduated from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1980. She then developed a religious studies minor, which she coordinated and taught until her retirement in 2014.

Her interest in the plight of Catholics in the secular environment led her to minister to the increasing number of Catholics living in non-denominational homes for the elderly.

"Because of the shortage of priests, Catholic residents only attend Mass once a month, or not at all, so I conduct a Communion service according to the directives of our diocese twice a month, followed by a Bible study from a course that I taught at Buffalo State," Sister Marianne said.

When Sister Marianne holds Communion services at the homes for the elderly, she receives a very positive response from both the residents and the staff who participate. Through her current ministry, Sister Marianne is able to minister to people who would not otherwise be able to see a priest.

"For some of the homes, all they have is me," she said disappointingly, noting that occasionally she is able to bring a retired Catholic priest for Mass, but most are needed elsewhere."

For Sister Marianne, this ministry is most fulfilling. She noted how amazing it is to see how appreciative people are of her services. In one instance, a resident bought a microphone to bring to Communion and Bible study services to improve the sound. Sister Marianne is especially moved during the Sign of Peace at the Mass, where each person she serves makes an effort to hold onto her hand.

"It just makes me realize how much their religion means to them, and if there's any way I can help them develop their relationship with Christ, I consider it a privilege," Sister Marianne said.
Sister Marianne said being a woman religious has the great advantage of getting right to the people in the community without having to go through some of the limitations prescribed by some formal institutions. By not being a member of a group with a rigid structure, she said, members of religious congregations enhance the service they can give to their community by reaching people on a very personal level.

Sister Marianne noted the Retirement Fund for the Religious has a large financial impact on all of the diocese's retired men and women religious, and she thanked those who have given.

"All of us are struggling with the cost of aging, and our congregations need a great deal of financial help for our sisters and brothers whose resources, personnel and finances are limited." she said. "It's been really a tremendous help for us. We all know the problems of trying to save for retirement."  

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