International Holy Names leader promotes justice and education
Sister Catherine Ferguson, SNJM, settled in Spokane in 2017 after years of study, teaching and justice action.
The previous 15 years she educated people and advocated for justice through UNANIMA International, a non-governmental organization (NGO) with the United Nations, and through her leadership with the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary (SNJM) in the United States, Canada and worldwide.
Catherine headed UNANIMA from 2001 to 2011, then served from 2011 to 2016 as superior general of the SNJM based in Longueuil, Quebec.
UNANIMA connects 20 congregations of Catholic sisters to educate and influence policy makers at the United Nations on behalf of women and children—especially those living in poverty—immigrants and refugees, and the environment. It brings voices, concerns and experiences of 20,000 members in more than 80 countries—women who work as educators, health care providers, social workers and development workers—to the UN headquarters in New York. Two of UNANIMA's campaigns are Water = Life and Stop the Demand (for human trafficking).
SNJM international justice commitments focus particularly on the struggle against human trafficking, access to water, and advocacy for refugees and migrants. The Holy Names Sisters have a network of schools, a university, clinics and community centers based on their commitment to "educate, contemplate, liberate."
In January 2017, Catherine moved to Spokane, where she previously studied at Fort Wright College, taught two years at the Academy and served from 1989 to 1995 as Washington provincial leader at the Convent of the Holy Names.
For 18 months beginning in 1987, her commitment to justice was deepened by research engaging with base communities in the capitals of Chile and Peru as their dictatorships became democracies, and Mexico during its presidential election.
In the fourth grade at Holy Names St. Mary's Grade School in Seattle, Catherine was inspired to be a sister and teach. She followed this inspiration during in high school at the Seattle Forest Ridge Convent taught by the Religious of the Sacred Heart. After graduating in 1961, she entered the convent at Marylhurst, Ore.
Her group of 38 was one of the larger groups of postulants. Many were from Seattle and Spokane.
In 1962, the Oregon-Washington province split by state. Being from Washington, she went to Fort Wright College in Spokane.
"We traveled to Spokane in a 20-passenger green school bus we had purchased in 1962 with Betty Crocker coupons. I remember after dinner soaking the cardboard to take the coupons off, so there was less weight to mail the millions needed," she said.
Catherine, whose degree was in math, taught grade school French two years in Spokane, and high school geometry, algebra, literature, world literature and religion 15 years in Seattle.
After completing a master's degree in 1970 at Champaign Urbana, Ill., she taught two years in Seattle and five years in Walla Walla. She was vice principal and taught at Sacred Heart Academy in Salem, Ore., before beginning master's and doctoral degrees in international studies at the Graduate School of International Studies at the University of Denver.
Oregon schools had mandated global studies, but had no curriculum, so Catherine developed one, because she was concerned that students were voting but ignorant of international issues.
Thinking it was important to know Spanish in this region, she did field work in Latin America for her dissertation, "working with Christian base communities to assess whether they helped marginalized people be in charge of their own destinies," she said.
She spent six months each in Santiago, Lima and Mexico City.
"It was life changing," she said.
"There were two kinds of Christian base communities. Some did political activism, worked in soup kitchens and carried out self-help activities. Others were more sacramental, teaching religion because there were few priests," said Catherine.
In Chile, she lived with a family in charge of a base community. The father had lived two years in exile in Argentina, because he was on a death list. After she left, Pinochet lost a plebiscite ending his dictatorship, despite attempts to detain people to prevent them from voting. The next election restored civilian rule in Chile, which was historically a democracy.
She was in Lima at the end of a military dictatorship as a new president was democratically elected. She also saw how inflation made it "impossible for people to live."
In Mexico City, some base communities were engaged in activism to challenge electoral fraud. On election day, they observed at precincts. With two-thirds of the count posted, Social Democrats were winning over the party that ruled since 1917. The computers went down. When they came up, the ruling party had the lead.
She returned to the U.S. expecting to have a year to write, but was elected to serve as provincial superior for Washington at the Convent of the Holy Names in Spokane from 1989 to 1995.
After that, she finished her dissertation and returned to international work, first serving a year as an English language intern at the Pax Christi headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, going to consultations in the Philippines, Asia, Latin America and Europe. She learned not only about European countries but also about the United Nations.
She is sad that U.S. news does not give "nuances of where we fit in the big picture, but focuses on presidential politics."
After returning, she worked from 1997 to 2001 with the Inner City Law Center in Los Angeles, addressing homelessness and aiding the lawyers to force slum landlords to compensate families for harm they suffered in their slum apartments, such as cockroach bites and damage by rats.
Following the 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, Holy Names Sisters and other religious communities had explored starting an NGO to lobby the United Nations and to influence international policy being made by world leaders there.
Alone, the Sisters of the Holy Names believed they were not big enough or international enough to be an NGO, so they partnered with the Franciscans International. Catherine, still in Los Angeles, began working half-time on that effort. She recruited other congregations to form such an NGO.
One weekend in September 2001, representatives of those congregations met in New York City to design an NGO. They developed a mission statement, budget and priorities, and asked for $50,000—$10,000 from five communities for each of three years.
"The name, UNANIMA, means being harmonious, not the same or unanimous," Catherine said.
It includes "anima," the feminine principle that animates life. "Unanima," expresses the desire to work together in a collegial way, especially related to the UN.
In February, the communities said "yes" to UNANIMA International. They became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2002 and affiliated with the UN in 2006.
As coordinator, Catherine lived in a studio apartment owned by the Cabrini Sisters in New York City and rented an office with two other NGOs. She focused on UNANIMA's priorities for social development, the status of women, sustainable development and HIV/AIDS.
"We gathered information from the grassroots to have impact on UN statements," she said.
In 2010 in Addis Ababa, she attended a meeting of UN experts and NGOs on poverty eradication. Materials developed there provided resources for the Commission on Social Development's policy statement on the eradication of poverty.
UNANIMA also worked with grassroots activists from member communities to provide information on governments' lack of compliance with women's rights as stated in the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). This information helped UN experts give recommendations to governments on how better to provide for the rights of women.
UNANIMA collaborated with lobbying efforts of the Blue Planet Project in Canada for the UN General Assembly to recognize that water is a human right, as a step to counter privatizing water.
"We had success lobbying smaller governments," Catherine said. "In 2011, the General Assembly recognized water as a human right, with abstentions but no negative votes."
"Sadly, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights is one of the few UN documents the U.S. has signed. The U.S. helped negotiate other documents affirming various human rights, such as the right of children, but because the Senate has refused to sign on to them, we have no internationally acceptable way to show our accountability for these rights," she said.
At UN meetings, UNANIMA often provides informed speakers to educate delegates on issues from the status of women's rights to how runoff from copper mines in Peru destroyed the environment.
In 2011, Catherine's election as superior general of the Sisters of the Holy Names took her to the international headquarters in Longueuil on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River across from Montreal. Over five years, she traveled to visit every place in the congregation once or twice—Lesotho, Peru, Brazil, Canada, the U.S. West Coast and U.S. Mid Atlantic. She also represented the congregation at meetings in Rome.
"In the late 1950s and 1960s, our congregation was its largest, with nearly 6,000 members, many using their gifts in teaching and parish work," Catherine said. "Like other congregations, the number entering decreased, while those in the community aged. After Vatican II from 1962 to 1965, many more career options opened for women, so fewer felt a vocation to be a nun. Many realized they didn't have a vocation and chose to leave religious communities."
After her term ended in December 2016, Catherine did a sabbatical year with some travel.
Now in Spokane, she volunteers with World Relief and helped with the Lisa Brown campaign.
"I feel a call to do religious and community service," she said, adding the importance of the spiritual dimension of service.
"Education is not just about schools. Our work with the UN is education," said Catherine, who in April began serving on the board of NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby.
"Education is an important part of who Holy Names Sisters were and are. We still have academies at Oakland, Tampa and Seattle," she said, "but education now is seen more broadly as 'community education,' teaching wherever sisters can make a difference in improving people's living conditions and speaking out for justice.
Copyright@ The Fig Tree, December, 2018