Special recognition for an SP heroine

Sr. Rita Ferschweiler
Sister Rita Ferschweiler, left, with Provincial Superior Karin DuFault.

Sister Rita Ferschweiler will have her name engraved on a wall at the Walk of the Heroines on the campus of Portland State University. The recognition was initiated by Providence Health & Services, the Provincial Superior and Council, and the Sisters of Providence in Portland.

Sister Rita was surprised to be presented with a certificate notifying her of the honor at the celebration of the 70th anniversary of Providence Portland Medical Center.

Born into an Oregon pioneer family in 1918, Sister Rita discovered early on what it means to be strongly connected to a community. She grew up milking cows, picking berries and hops, and doing chores on the family farm near the tiny Willamette Valley town of Gervais, Ore.

Rita moved to Portland after high school, and made the decision to enter the novitiate of the Sisters of Providence in 1942. Two years later she professed her vows as a Sister of Providence.

For coverage of the sisters’ move and of the 70th anniversary celebration:

Feeling called to a ministry of compassionate care, Sister Rita (who was then known as Sister Mary Laureen) earned her nursing diploma at St. Elizabeth School of Nursing in Yakima, Wash., in 1948. She received a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Seattle University in 1957, and a master’s in nursing service administration from St. Louis University in 1958.

Modeled her leadership after Mother Joseph

In her contributions to nursing and to health care administration, Sister Rita drew inspiration from the pioneering Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart. She modeled her leadership after that venerable Sister of Providence, who brought a health care and social service ministry from Quebec to the Pacific Northwest in 1856. Mother Joseph is recognized prominently in the Walk of the Heroines.

Sr. Rita enjoys a happy moment with Sr. Jeanette Heindl.
Sr. Rita enjoys a happy moment with Sr. Jeanette Heindl.

Sister Rita joined St. Vincent Hospital, Oregon’s first hospital, in 1956 as a staff nurse and rose to director of nursing. In 1964 she was named the hospital’s administrator – quite a step for someone who wanted nothing more than to care for a tiny new baby or hold the hand of a patient in pain. With that appointment, she became the Sisters of Providence’s point person when the decision was made to relocate St. Vincent Hospital. Sister Rita spearheaded construction of a modern 451-bed facility and oversaw the massive 1971 move from Northwest Westover Road in Portland to the current Providence St. Vincent Medical Center site on Southwest Barnes Road.

One of Oregon’s “10 Women of Accomplishment”

That same year, 1971, The Oregon Journal newspaper named Sister Rita one of Oregon’s “10 Women of Accomplishment” for her contributions to the health of the Portland community. Decades later, in an article in The Oregonian, civic leader and author Gerry Frank would write: “Sister Rita’s faith, her love of fellow human beings and her consistent thoughtfulness have made her one of the most popular living ‘saints’ in our community.”

Sister Rita is fondly remembered as an administrator of warm heart and good humor who kept her door open to all. She treasured the hospital’s sense of family and community. She completed her work in 1972, the last Sister of Providence to serve as an administrator of a Portland hospital. However, her administrative days were far from over.

In 1977 Sister Rita was asked to assume the role of administrator of Mount St. Vincent in Seattle, a care center for older adults. There, she was able to share her deep love for and appreciation of the elderly. She enrolled in the Continuing Religious Education Development Opportunities program (CREDO) at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash. Through this program, she gained a renewal in scripture and theology and an even deeper spirituality.

Her ministry founded on love and service

Sister Rita joined the Provincial Council/Board of Directors as the councilor for ministry in the Sisters of Providence’s Sacred Heart Province in 1985. As her administrative responsibilities increased, she was named to many boards and held membership in several nursing and administrative organizations. Regardless of the position she held or the accolades she received, her love for the elderly and her genuine call to serve the poor and vulnerable remained the foundation of her ministry.

Sister Rita eventually returned to Portland, living on the Providence Portland Medical Center campus, and continuing her volunteer ministry with patients, serving on boards, making phone calls for a busy blood clinic, bringing the Eucharist to patients and reading books for visually impaired people.

To this day she finds nature a source of refreshment. She often visits the family farm in St. Paul, Ore., picking fruits and berries for her fellow Sisters of Providence.

The sense of community that nourished Sister Rita’s early life continues to nurture her devotion to serving others. “I am grateful,” she has said, “for the gift of faith, which has been the sustaining element over the years, and thankful for a loving, supporting immediate family and for a close extended family. I am thankful to a religious community that supported, challenged, and provided growth opportunities, both spiritually and professionally, and I am thankful for friends. If I had it to do over again, I’d do the same thing.”