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Holy Names sister carries on global, interfaith interest

Catherine Ferguson SNJM continues Holy Names involvement.

By Mary Stamp

For The Fig Tree's 40th anniversary in 2024, we will be featuring some of the people who have been part of our history as a means to tell our story over the coming months.


After 15 years of teaching, Catherine Ferguson of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary (SNJM) traveled the world to do international research, for an internship and in leadership roles.

Now she connects with global, ecumenical, interfaith diversity as she writes and edits feature stories for The Fig Tree, carrying on 40 years of commitment by the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, who helped found it and continue to play a role in its production and leadership.

In 1984, Bernadine Casey SNJM co-founded The Fig Tree newspaper with Mary Stamp, now publisher and editor. Bernadine worked as associate editor with a team of staff, freelance and volunteer writers, editors and others who raised support through advertising, sponsors and community partners.

"The Fig Tree is important because it inspires people to act. Its stories are good news that encourage people to have hope and to commit to do things for the good of the community," Catherine said.

"I have enjoyed interviewing and writing the stories of many people—from stories on hospice workers to a group of men who make wooden wagons for children who have lost limbs," she said. "Each story is interesting for different reasons, and doing interviews and writing fits my energy level at this point in my life.

"Working with The Fig Tree has opened me to the ecumenical community here as we cover people of diverse backgrounds," Catherine remarked.

In 1961, right out of high school, Catherine entered the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary Convent at Marylhurst near Portland, Ore.

A year later, the Oregon and Washington provinces split. She came to Spokane, but she returned in 1964 to Marylhurst to make her first vows. Then she returned to Spokane to study for a bachelor's degree in math with a minor in chemistry and courses in education on her path to become a high school teacher.

After graduating in 1966, she taught for two years at Holy Names Academy near Gonzaga.

She then taught for two years at Immaculate High School in Seattle, with a break to earn a master's in math, followed by teaching math, French, literature, religion, bookkeeping and social studies in Catholic high schools in the Northwest until 1983.

Concerned that high school students focused on Friday night football games and had little sense of the U.S.'s power in the world, Catherine decided to teach social studies. So she earned a doctoral degree in international studies at the University of Denver.

For her dissertation, Catherine visited Latin American Christian base communities among the poor. After six weeks of learning Spanish in Mexico, she had extended stays with base communities in Santiago, Chile, in Lima, Peru, and in Mexico City, Mexico, from 1986 to 1988.

Catherine returned to Seattle to write her dissertation, but her plans changed in 1989, when she was elected to serve as provincial superior in Spokane.

"That was during the early years of The Fig Tree. I was aware of Bernadine's role writing and editing," she said. "She was so meticulous."

After Catherine's term ended in 1995, she served a year with Pax Christi as English language intern in Brussels, Belgium, which included being a liaison for Latin America with the United Nations in Geneva.

During that year, she traveled with peace delegations to the Philippines, Columbia, and Central America, making use of her Spanish.

Returning to the U.S. in 1998, she served at Inner City Law Center in Los Angeles focusing on housing law and with homeless people.

In 2001, she spearheaded Holy Names Sisters' efforts to form an NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) to lobby the United Nations on immigrants, refugees, children's rights, women's rights and the environment.

"We formed a coalition of women's religious communities, UNANIMA International, that grew from six congregations to 23 by the time I left," Catherine said. "I visited congregations all over the world, giving workshops on environmental issues, HIV-AIDS and human trafficking."

From 2011 to 2016, she served as leader of the Sisters of the Holy Names at their headquarters at Longueuil on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, across from Montreal. In that role, she traveled around the U.S. and Canada, and to Peru and Lesotho, to visit Holy Names Sisters.

She returned to Spokane in 2016. Fig Tree editor Mary interviewed her in December 2018 and, in the process, learned she wanted to write. By February 2019, Catherine completed training for writers and editors, and since then, has written articles and helped edit each issue.

When Mary Ann Farley SNJM, who was on the board, moved to Portland, Catherine joined the board in January 2020.

"Holy Names Sisters for a long time primarily worked in education, teaching in grade school, high school and at Fort Wright College. Vatican II opened up opportunities for us to work in parishes and volunteer community services," said Catherine, who also volunteers as a board member of NETWORK, a Catholic Social Justice Lobby and has recently been chosen as the NETWORK Lobby board chair and serves as a co-chair with Leslye Colvin of Network Advocates.

In Spokane, sisters have been involved with Transitions. Two helped found Miriam's House and another the Women's Drop-In Center, now the Women's Hearth. Others have taught at Gonzaga University and been hospital chaplains.

When sisters retire, many find volunteer work, such as Karen Conlin who volunteers at Our Place ecumenical outreach center and Marianne Therese Wilkinson with the Jesuit Volunteers and SCRAPS.

Two sisters still teach at Holy Names Music Center, a traditional part of the Holy Names ministry, encouraging liturgical musicians as well as teaching many who are now in the Spokane Symphony.

Today, 20 Holy Names Sisters and about 20 associates live in the Spokane-Coeur d'Alene area. At its peak, the Washington Province (Seattle, Yakima and Spokane) had 450 sisters, with 100 in Spokane.

In 2016, they sold the convent they built in 1968 on Fort Wright property on the south bank of the Spokane River near T.J. Meenach. The larger part was sold to Catholic Charities for its Rising Strong affordable housing in partnership with the Empire Health Foundation. The rest—31 acres of the forested riverbank—was sold to Spokane County Conservation Futures to be preserved as a natural area.

By then, many of the aging sisters moved to what is now the South Hill Village for their housing and health care needs.

Funds from the sale assures care for sisters and enables them to support ministries of education, social services and financial assistance to poor and marginalized women and children, Transitions and the Holy Names Music Center.

"Our charism—or gift—has been to serve as 1) elementary and secondary educators, 2) music educators and 3) justice advocates, particularly on water as a human right, on ending human trafficking and on immigrants and refugees," said Catherine.

"Our associates, which started 45 years ago, also have a strong sense of justice," she added.

The Fig Tree not only has been a beneficiary of the Holy Names ministry grants most years since 2002, but also has benefitted from the volunteer work of Holy Names Sisters, carrying on Bernadine's legacy.

For example, Rose Theresa Costello and Mary Louise DiJulio joined volunteer mailing teams for many years.

Many mentioned in this article have also been subjects of Fig Tree feature stories.

For information, call 535-1813 or email


Sister comments on Holy Names' involvement with The Fig Tree

Mary Ann Farley SNJM, who served on The Fig Tree Board nine years and now lives in Portland, Oregon, has always spoken of Fig Tree stories being the "good news."

"The stories are modern day Gospel stories," she said recently. "Each of us is a Gospel story, so each person featured shares their Gospel story. Unlike other media that look for sensational stories to stir people up, The Fig Tree looks for stories of people who are making the world a better place.

"For weary travelers in this world, it's good to know that many people are working for good," Mary Ann said.

"Good will win," she said.

"The Fig Tree keeps us on the side of faith and hope, and it will never run out of stories of people who keep trying to make a better world," she explained.

"While other news media look for scandalous sound bites and news that divides us, we look for stories that bring us together, stories of hope that keep us hoping and fostering good," she said. "The Fig Tree energizes us to see what unites us."

Mary Ann sees The Fig Tree's perseverance for 40 years as "a huge accomplishment, particularly of Mary Stamp, but that would not have happened without the strong level of support it has had.

"There is no perseverance without the support of stories, readers and advertisers. I acknowledge Mary's ability to persevere, but I know she depends on people of faith to share their stories, on people who serve on the board and on the many volunteers," Mary Ann said.

"I know over the 40 years that The Fig Tree has fed Mary, too, one story after another," she said.

"I am also so thankful that Catherine carries on the Holy Names Sisters' involvement. I have huge admiration for her. She brings a world-wide perspective to local stories that adds strength and vision to The Fig Tree.  Her lifelong pursuit of justice at every level is a gift—from the large issues of immigration to genocide to the use of everyday words to be inclusive.

"Her antenna is geared for faith and justice," Mary Ann observed. "I'm glad she chose to pair her interest in writing with The Fig Tree after serving in leadership at all levels of our community."

As a note on Bernadine, Mary Ann remembers when she was dying: "'I don't feel like I am dying,' said Sister Bernadine, sitting in her recliner. She picked up her pen and continued editing an article for The Fig Tree. I thought she would die with a pen in her hand. She nearly did!"

Copyright@ The Fig Tree, January 2024