Back In The Pulpit

September 17, 1995|By Mike Klingaman

In northern Harford County, the deep woods make their own cathedrals, and sunlight filters through the leaves as if through .. stained-glass windows.

People call this God's country.

Sitting in a clearing on Darlington Road is an old stone church with traditional trappings: a lofty steeple, a tidy graveyard and an affable, middle-aged country preacher who greets his flock by their first names.

The pastoral setting agrees with the church's new pastor, a 58-year-old clergyman with an extraordinary past.

Meet the Rev. Bob Ferguson, minister of Deer Creek Harmony Presbyterian Church -- and a former Roman Catholic priest.

For more than two decades, the Rev. Ferguson was known simply as Father Bob, academic dean of a Catholic seminary in Texas and a respected church scholar. Then he fell in love and, after much soul-searching, left the priesthood to marry.

He never expected to preach again. But in June, 14 years after leaving the Catholic clergy, the Rev. Ferguson was installed as pastor of the quaint granite church on the cusp of Susquehanna State Park.

Different pulpit, same sponsor.

The preacher's prayers were answered.

"Everything in my background has led me to be minister of this congregation," the Rev. Ferguson says. "I really believe in God's providence. He opens and closes doors and leads us where he wants us to serve."

Church officials say the Rev. Ferguson is a rarity, one of a handful of Roman Catholic priests-turned-pastors in the 207-year history of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

"I know of only three such cases myself," says Fred Jenkins, a historian assigned to the church's main office in Louisville, Ky. "It's definitely rare, though not unknown."

His decision to return to the clergy in a different stream of Christian faith was not an easy one, the Rev. Ferguson says.

"I'm not trying to disown the rich tradition in which I grew up," he says. "I'd still be a priest if [the Catholic Church] allowed them to marry. But they don't -- and the ongoing thread in my life has been to actively serve Christ."

Since he no longer can do that in one church, he says, he'll try to do it in another.

"There are good Christians in all denominations," he says, glancing at his wife, Peg. The woman who shares his life shares his calling as well.

E9 Father Bob fell in love with a Presbyterian minister.

The Rev. Ferguson's spiritual odyssey began in 1951, in an eighth-grade classroom of a parochial school in Detroit, Mich. Catholic missionaries dropped by the school regularly on recruiting trips, and the intriguing tales of one visiting priest captured the heart of a 14-year-old altar boy.

The priest spoke of his work in the southwestern United States, where missionaries traveled by horseback and said their "Hail Marys" in Spanish.

The altar boy listened, spellbound. "It sounded like a romantic, far-off life," says the Rev. Ferguson, eldest of four children in a hard-working, blue-collar family.

He decided then to turn his own collar around.

He left his parents, pets and paper route and boarded a train for a seminary in San Antonio, Texas, to study for the priesthood -- a pursuit that would take 14 years of his life.

The breakdown: four years of high school on the seminary campus, two years of college, one year of novitiate ("a kind of spiritual boot camp," he says), three years of philosophical studies and four years of theological training.

His schooling spanned the tenures of three popes and four U.S. presidents. When Bob Ferguson entered the seminary, Harry Truman was in the White House; when he left, Lyndon Johnson was president.

The demanding program took its toll on those around him. Less than 10 percent of Bob Ferguson's classmates completed their training. Of the 36 students in his original group, three became priests.

He flourished in the structured lifestyle. Most demanding was the time he and other seminarians were required to spend working at a church-owned cattle farm near Mission, Texas. For 12 months, they wore long black cassocks and labored in brush country under the hot Texas sun, planting shrubs, laying irrigation pipes and doing other mundane chores in near monklike silence.

He lost 20 pounds.

"We were put through drills to see how much we could take," he says. "Fool around, and the novice master would get in your face and chew you out like a drill sergeant. Goof off, and you had to eat your meals kneeling."

Bob found the work exhilarating.

"It was a marvelous year, a threshold-type experience," he says. "It helped us to really focus, to make the decision [toward priesthood].

"We had to leave our old identities behind and form new ones. I got into it, embraced it, resonated with it."

He survived boot camp and prospered in his studies, earning high honors and the respect of fellow seminarians such as Michael Pfeifer, now the bishop of San Angelo, Texas.

Bishop Pfeifer's assessment of Bob Ferguson: "A very intelligent man, intensely dedicated to the ministry, with a lot of 'people gifts' too."

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