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THE BALTIMORE SUN

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."

In 1964, Bob Ferguson was ordained a priest. At 27, he'd earned his wings -- and his star kept rising.

A noted academician, Father Bob was sent to the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Italy, to further his studies in theology and church history. While there, he attended the Second Vatican Council and met Pope Paul VI on the steps of the Sistine Chapel.

In 1968, he returned to the seminary in San Antonio and joined the faculty as a graduate instructor.

One year later, he was named academic dean of the school of theology.

Eleven years passed. Father Bob immersed himself in his work at the seminary, handling administrative affairs, teaching and creating a master's degree program there. Church officials observed his "people gifts" and gave Father Bob charge of spiritual development of seminary students.

Friends thought he'd found his niche. Outwardly, Father Bob seemed satisfied to finish his ministry in the confines of the seminary in San Antonio.

But privately, he'd begun to brood. Middle age approached, and he felt lonely at times. Though surrounded by colleagues and friends, he had the feeling that something was missing.

"Even though I lived in a community, there was a certain degree of intimacy that I could not experience," he says.

Father Bob shrugged off those feelings and threw himself into his graduate studies. In mid-1980, he began a doctoral program at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, a Presbyterian campus that accepts pastoral students of all faiths.

There, he met Peg Schelling, a dynamic, high-spirited clergywoman from Baltimore.

Father Bob's world turned upside down.

He recalls every detail of their first encounter on a bright sunny morning in June:

"I was leaving the residence hall for breakfast when I heard someone two steps behind me. I turned to see a woman walking briskly in my direction.

"We introduced ourselves, and I noticed she was very outgoing, a real live wire. Then a friend of hers approached, and they were gone."

As Peg Schelling disappeared, Father Bob thought, Hmmm, what a neat-looking woman.

He caught up with her in the dining hall, and they began sharing meals and small talk. He was a quiet, studious, 43-year-old priest; she, a 42-year-old divorcee and mother of two, who was preparing for the pulpit.

The longer they broke bread, the more intimate their conversations became.

Father Bob found himself baring his soul to someone he barely knew.

"What a marvelous listener," he says of Peg. "I began sharing details of my life at a depth I'd never reached with anyone."

She found Father Bob a joy to be around. "He had an easy grace about him," she recalls. "A little shy, but very easy to talk to -- and very bright."

Three weeks later, they took in a movie, a Burt Reynolds film, the title of which both have forgotten. As they drove to the theater, Father Bob was nervous as a schoolboy.

"I was excited and somewhat unsure of myself," he says. "All I knew was that I was very attracted to Peg."

And vice versa. During the film, she reached out in the darkened theater and squeezed Father Bob's right hand. He squeezed back.

By summer's end, they'd fallen in love. There was just one hitch.

The priest was already spoken for.

It was a dilemma with which he would wrestle for nearly a year.

"More and more, I knew I wanted to marry Peg, though I hadn't told her," he says. "I was struggling with my world. If we married, was I ready to give up the priesthood and the last 29 years of my life? That was frightening.

"Those were very, very tough months."

That fall, Peg returned to Baltimore and her job as director of Christian education at Towson Presbyterian Church. Father Bob wrote her, phoned her, drove from Princeton to see her on weekends.

They dated openly, without remorse. Father Bob sought spiritual guidance from family and friends, Catholic and Protestant. He informed his superiors of his romance, adding that he'd made no commitment as yet.

But he had.

One chilly night in January 1981, as they snuggled on the sofa in Peg's home in Northeast Baltimore, Father Bob proposed.

"Will you marry me?" he asked, offering her a silver ring with a simple cross.

Peg did a reality check. She was a divorcee with two pre-teen sons, a dog and a gerbil. For this, he would sacrifice all?

He smiled. So did she.

"I never thought someone would ever love me and my children," she says. "It was a miracle."

A miracle with loose ends.

When Father Bob broke the news to his superiors in Texas, they asked him to seek spiritual and psychological counseling there. No arm-twisting or browbeating, they said. Just time to re-examine his choice.

"He was making a radical decision about his life, one that would not have the approval of the church," says Bishop Pfeifer, his immediate supervisor.

Father Bob agreed to voluntary counseling, which lasted three months. For Peg, half a continent away, they were the longest three months of her life. What if he changed his mind now and returned to the church?

"Friends said I was insane to think Bob would come home," she says. "There is stability in the priesthood, and he was giving that up for something that could have ended up being a disaster for him."

The weeks dragged on. When Father Bob phoned, Peg could sense the strain in his tone. "Happy Easter!" she exclaimed when he called on that day. A long pause -- then a tired voice spoke.

"Peg. It's still Good Friday for me."

And she thought, If he still wants to marry me, I'll know God's hand is in this.

A week later, Father Bob called to say he'd reached a decision. He was leaving the clergy. Documents were signed, farewells said. The parting was amicable.

Father Bob was now just plain . . . Bob.

The news divided his kin. Bob's father, Robert Ferguson Sr., a devout Catholic, phoned his daughter, Cheryl Reed, to protest.

"Bob is getting married, but I'm not going to the wedding," Robert Ferguson said. "It's just not right. Once a priest, always a priest."

Ms. Reed exploded. "Listen," she said, "I've never given up 30 years of my life for anyone. Bob has -- for God. He's done more for humanity than I'll ever do. So I'll be there."

Robert Ferguson attended the wedding, too.

The nuptials took place one scorching day in August 1981, at Towson Presbyterian Church. The best man was Bob's brother-in-law, at whose wedding Bob had presided. One of the ushers was a Catholic priest whom Bob had met while in Rome.

The bride wore a cream-colored dress and carried a bouquet of yellow roses -- a nod to the 29 years Bob had lived, worked and prayed in Texas.

The couple took their vows from the Bible (Ruth 1:16): Where you go, I will go . . . Your God is my God.

A week later, the newlyweds moved to Swarthmore, Pa., where Peg started work as assistant pastor of the local Presbyterian church.

Her career in the ministry was being launched as his came tumbling down.

Twelve years went by. Peg moved on to bigger churches, better paychecks. For a while, Bob kept up his religious studies, with an eye toward teaching in college. He also took several banking jobs to help support the family.

He got laid off. Twice.

How ironic, he thought. I'd never had to worry about job security as a priest.

Privately, Bob longed to return to the clergy. He continued to attend Mass, but from the pew, not the pulpit. That door was closed forever.

He began dabbling in Presbyterian affairs -- leading congregational retreats, teaching Christian education classes and doing other lay work at his wife's churches.

Presbyterian leaders encouraged Bob's efforts, and the whirl of religious activity buoyed his spirit.

"It was new, exciting stuff," he says. "I'd been trying to make it in the business world, but my heart was in church work."

At Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church, in Severna Park, where the Fergusons had moved in 1988, Bob sometimes found himself at the center of worship services, reading Scriptures and even preaching to the flock on Sunday mornings.

Folks enjoyed his rhetoric. "Why don't you go back to the ministry?" they asked.

There was just one hitch.

In 1993, after more soul-searching, Bob Ferguson formally joined the Presbyterian Church.

"In 12 years, I'd grown to feel very comfortable there," he says. "Plus, I wanted to be a more active Christian, which is what we're all about."

Active, he has been. In the past two years, the Rev. Ferguson has been received as associate pastor of a large church in Carroll County, ordained by the Presbytery of Baltimore after a series of comprehensive examinations, and installed as minister of the 100-member Deer Creek Harmony Church in Harford County.

His wife says that his whole demeanor has changed. "Bob gets up with a sparkle in his eye and a spring in his step," says Peg.

The couple resides in the church-owned manse, a brick rancher, two miles from the sanctuary. Peg is pastor of Granite Presbyterian Church in Baltimore County.

Says the Rev. Ferguson: "Now we've got His and Her churches."

He was an overwhelming choice to lead Deer Creek Harmony Church, which had been without a permanent pastor for two years.

"On a scale of 1 to 10, he's a good 9," says Joyce Crothers, chairman of Deer Creek Harmony Church's pastoral nominating committee. "His sermons are excellent, not over your head."

The Rev. Ferguson's background was "a plus," Ms. Crothers says. "No one had any qualms about that. We felt that most

Roman Catholic priests show a great deal of compassion -- and he does."

"I was sorry to see Bob leave here," says the Rev. Steven Fleming, who had hired him as associate pastor at First United Presbyterian Church in Westminster, Carroll County. "You don't normally have seminary deans walk in saying, 'I'm looking for a part-time job.'

NB "Bob knows more history of the Presbyterian Church than I do."

In his 10 months at the Westminster church, the Rev. Ferguson initiated several programs, including Lenten suppers and an all-day prayer vigil on Good Friday.

His arrival in the Presbyterian Church makes the Rev. Ferguson a unique resource during a period of subtle change, the Rev. Fleming says. "There has been a reawakening of the importance of Bible study and prayer retreats, and Bob has training in those fields that most Presbyterian clergy do not.

"Also, he bridges two of the major Christian faiths in America at a time when nearly one-fourth of our church's new members have some Catholic background. He can help them through that journey."

The Rev. Ferguson's tale strikes a blow for ecumenism, says the Rev. George Toole, pastor of Towson Presbyterian Church, who presided at the Fergusons' wedding.

"Bob's story highlights for us the vast majority of beliefs and practices that we all hold in common," he says. "He epitomizes the richness of both traditions [Catholic and Protestant]. That's a rare commodity today, but one which we should notice more."

.

MIKE KLINGAMAN is a reporter for The Sun.

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