Sr. Rita at her 100th birthday party in Seattle. (Courtesy Sisters of Providence)
Sr. Rita at her 100th birthday party in Seattle. (Courtesy Sisters of Providence)
Sister of Providence Rita Ferschweiler, 102, a notable leader in the Providence healthcare system in the Pacific Northwest, died April 25 at St. Joseph Residence in Seattle. The dates and times of her vigil and funeral Mass are pending.

On her 100th birthday in 2018 — which was also the occasion of her 75th jubilee as a Sister of Providence — Sister Rita shrugged off the accolades her religious sisters, friends and coworkers showered upon her, speaking instead of her gratitude for being blessed with good health and a strong faith.

“Sister Rita was just this amazing dynamo,” according to Lisa Vance, chief executive for Providence Health and Services in Oregon. “Sister Rita’s impact to Portland and health care is huge.”

Sister Rita was born in St. Louis, Ore., to Lawrence Fershweiler and Marie Ruben (Bonning) on March 16, 1918, the year that marked the beginning of the Spanish flu pandemic. She was the eldest of six children, and grew up milking cows and picking hops and berries.

Sister Rita said that the doctor hadn’t thought she’d survive, but her grandmother kept her close until she grew strong.

Sister Rita entered the Sisters of Providence in November 1942 at Mount St. Vincent, Seattle, Wash., and in May 1943, she became a novice. In November 1944 she professed first vows and received the name Sister Mary Laureen. In November 1952 she professed final vows.

Sister Rita served primarily as a medical-surgical nurse and administrator from 1948 to 1984.

After training at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Yakima, Washington, she served as a medical-surgical nurse in Seattle, Fairbanks and Anchorage, Alaska, and Yakima. She received a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Seattle University and then was sent to St. Louis University for a master’s degree in nursing service administration.

She had begun working as a nurse for St. Vincent Hospital in Portland in 1956. She rose swiftly, becoming director of nursing and then, in 1964, hospital administrator.

In 1971, Sister Rita shepherded the hospital’s move from Northwest Portland to Southwest. At the time, the forested west hills felt remote.

Vance guessed Sister Rita was second-guessed when she made the decision to move the hospital, “I’m sure that many people thought she had maybe lost it,” said Vance. “But she was really thinking about population growth in the area and what would come. And boy, did she nail it.”

The Oregon Journal newspaper named Sister Rita as one of Oregon’s ten 1971 Women of Accomplishment.

“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,” wrote author Gerry Frank in The Oregonian,

She left Providence St. Vincent in 1972. She was the last Sister of Providence to serve as an administrator of a Portland hospital.

Sister Rita then served in ministries at St. Peter Hospital in Olympia and Mount St. Vincent in Seattle, and later on the Provincial Council. In 1977 she became administrator of Mount St. Vincent in Seattle, a care center.

She eventually returned to Portland, living on the Providence Portland Medical Center campus and continuing her volunteer ministry to patients and the community. Sister Rita moved to St. Joseph Residence in Seattle in the fall of 2011.

In May 2012, Sister Rita was honored by Providence St. Vincent Hospital with a "Peace Garden" for her many years of dedicated ministry to the Providence medical community in Oregon.

Sister Rita was preceded in death by her parents; her brothers, Thomas and Cyril; and sisters, Doris and Rosemary. She is survived by her brother Lloyd and many nieces and nephews, grand-nieces and grand-nephews.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Sisters of Providence Retirement Fund, 1801 Lind Avenue SW, M1-C, Renton, WA, 98057. To view Sister Rita’s obituary with her picture and to sign her memory book, please visit the website for Bonney-Watson Funeral Home at bonneywatson.com.