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Sister Rita Ferschweiler, S.P.

Sister Rita Ferschweiler, one of the great figures in Providence Health history, was born into a pioneer family on a farm near Gervais, Oregon, in 1918. She grew up milking cows and picking hops and berries, and to this day returns to the family farm to pick fruit for friends. She entered the novitiate of the Sisters of Providence in 1942, and then earned a nursing diploma at Saint Elizabeth School of Nursing in Yakima (1948), her bachelor’s in nursing at Seattle University (1957), and her master’s in nursing service administration from Saint Louis University (1958).

She joined Saint Vincent Hospital in 1956 as a staff nurse, and swiftly rose to director of nursing and, in 1964, hospital administrator. Sister Rita directed Saint Vincent’s move from northwest Portland to southwest, in 1971 (a change which included the construction of a new 451-bed facility), a feat which earned her an award as one of Oregon’s Ten 1971 Women of Accomplishment, from The Oregon Journal newspaper. In 1977 the indefatigable Sister Rita was asked to take over administration of Mount Saint Vincent in Seattle, a care center for older people, which she ran with the same attention to detail and memorable personal charm and tenderness as she had Saint Vincent in Portland. She also managed somehow to find time for further theological and scriptural study at Gonzaga University, before being asked, in 1985, to serve as her order’s Sacred Heart Province councilor for ministry.

In a real sense Sister Rita has never actually relinquished or retired from this position; in the nearly thirty years since she has been essentially a minister at large for an endless series of boards, committees, commissions, and clinics in Portland and Seattle. She has also been an energetic Eucharistic minister, reader of books for the blind, and cheerful ambassador for her order, her profession, and her Church. As author Gerry Frank once wrote in The Oregonian, “Sister Rita’s faith, her love of her fellow human beings, and her consistent thoughtfulness have made her one of the most popular living saints in our community”—a sentiment echoed by countless men, woman, and children in the Pacific Northwest, and the essential reason that the University honors this whirlwind of service and compassion with an honorary doctorate of public service.

“I am grateful,” she said recently, “for the gift of faith, which has been the sustaining element for me over the years, and I am thankful for a loving and supporting immediate family and a close extended family. I am thankful to a religious community that supported and challenged me, and provided growth opportunities both spiritually and professionally. And I am so thankful for friends. If I had the chance to do it all over again, I’d do the same thing…”