Brian T. Olszewski, The Catholic Virginian

Seeds of a vocation can come from a variety of places and people. For Deacon Anthony Ferguson, one sower was J.R.R. Tolkien, author of “The Hobbit” and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

“I am definitely a card-carrying nerd in that regard. I love ‘Lord of the Rings,’” he said. “In many ways, that book pre-evangelized me and got me thinking about these huge, epic battles of good and evil, and virtue, and being courageous. ‘Lord of the Rings’ is such a powerful part of my story.”

Deacon Ferguson, 31, sees himself as Bilbo Baggins, working and minding his own business. Then Gandalf arrives.

“I think that’s very powerful in regard to the vocational call, because that’s how it felt with me. Gandalf shows up and he’s like, ‘Hey, I’m looking for someone to go on an adventure.’ And I was like, ‘No, adventures are for other people.’ But slowly but surely you just kind of get swept up into the little company of dwarves.”

But the sprouting and nurturing of Deacon Ferguson’s vocation was not solely the work of fictional characters in fictional settings. Growing up in Richmond, the vocation of Tom and Kathy Ferguson’s older child was shaped by numerous people and various experiences. He has a sister, Kenzie Peterson.

‘You’re supposed to be a priest’

“My mom was actually a huge part of this. After college (University of Richmond, 2010) I just found myself in this place where I didn’t really have many friends and I was alone in Richmond,” he said. “I was like, ‘What do I do with myself now that I’m in the real world?’ I had a job, but I really didn’t know what to do.”

Kathy Ferguson told him about a young adult Bible study group that was just beginning at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart.

“I met some really, really good friends through this Bible study. And that opened my mind to the fact that finding God in community, finding God in the midst of the Church and in the midst of ministry was really fruitful,” he said of joining the group in 2012. “That led me to get involved with youth ministry at my church. And I started to really fall in love with just desiring the salvation of other people.”

One of the people he met was Eileen Bartolozzi. She was dating one of Deacon Ferguson’s friends, so he asked her for dating advice. She provided it, but she offered another insight.

“She will tell you this to this very day that she knew that I had a vocation. She knew that I had a different kind of calling. And so she very, very quickly started to share this with me, and she’s very blunt, and that was really what I needed,” he said. 

Bartolozzi confirmed the story and his assessment of her bluntness. 

“It was a month into knowing him. I said, ‘I think you’re supposed to be a priest; take it for what it’s worth,’” she recalled.

Another influence on his vocational discernment was his pastor at St. Mary, Richmond, Father Michael Renninger. Their first discussions were about theological questions, but the priest was listening for something else.

“What I was listening for was what God might be up to in this person’s life more broadly,” Father Renninger said. “Hearing his desire to know the Lord more as he read and as we talked and he prayed, my sense was God was working on his heart in terms of his future direction.”

The priest encouraged Deacon Ferguson to become involved in the Church.

“The Lord feeds our minds, but he really leads us when we give our time and energy to serving others,” said Father Renninger, who served as diocesan vocations director from 1997-2010. “I encouraged him to get more involved in the life of the parish community and broader Catholic community in Richmond in terms of service and engagement.”

Wedding Gospel, media

With an undergraduate degree in studio art and art history, Deacon Ferguson worked as a graphic designer at Key Web Concepts in Chesterfield. The agency had a client on whose website he was working — the Diocese of Richmond Office of Vocations.

“That’s one thread among many that God was tugging at. It was kind of the most hilarious one, probably, because it’s just like I’m wracking my mind and my heart over what I should do with my life, and here I am staring at a computer screen with the vocations website and looking at seminarians,” Deacon Ferguson said. “Pixel by pixel putting together this website and it’s like maybe I should just consider this.” 

When Deacon Ferguson entered the seminary in 2014, he brought along his enthusiasm for media and how it can be used to bring people closer to God.

“When I look at all of these tools that we have at our disposal today, and how God has led me to be effective with them, I’m just trying to use all of these things to give Jesus to the world,” he said. “ I mean, that’s what it all comes down to, and that’s what the Church’s mission ultimately is — to evangelize, to share the Gospel, to say, ‘This is what God has done for me, and it has changed everything, and I’m still imperfect, I’m still working on it, I still have so much to learn. And yet, at the same time, I can’t stop giving this away to others and inviting other people to walk with me, toward the Lord.’”

In early 2019, he and Father Cassidy Stinson, then a deacon, launched the Alberione Project, a media evangelization initiative of the Theological College in Washington. Their podcast, The Big Tree, provided seminarians with an opportunity to hone their media skills. 

“The reason why I find the media so captivating is that it is a means of communication. And the Church has always been about communication. It’s always been about using the tools of the time, whether it be paint, or stained glass, or cathedrals, or beautiful music, or books,” he said. “All of these things have been used by the Church forever to communicate the truth. So the reason why I want to use the media in the Church is basically just that. The fundamental thing is the Gospel and then however you want to distribute that and diffuse that, we should use that prudently and according to virtue.”

‘Hungry for ministry’

Deacon Ferguson’s excitement about priesthood is boundless.

“I’m really excited about the priest’s intimacy with the Lord, and I’m excited about celebrating the Mass and experiencing the Mass in a completely different way,” he said. “There’s this deep intimacy, standing in the person of Christ and knowing that you’re nothing and just trusting that he’s going to make this bread his body and this wine his blood through you, and you’re extremely unworthy.”

He said the seminary made him “hungry for ministry.”

“I’m excited to be in the parish. I’m excited to be with people. I’m excited to be part of their lives. I’m excited to be able to be there when it’s happy and also when it’s really difficult,” Deacon Ferguson said. “I hope and trust that God will provide the grace for me to be present to people in the way that I need to be.”

Bartolozzi and Father Renninger are confident Deacon Ferguson will be present to those he serves.

“He is going to be a priest who is incredibly thoughtful, spends time to mediate, to discern the will of God, to think about options and how those options impact people,” Bartolozzi said. “He is a convicted man. He is never going to let a call to comfort take away from his call to greatness.”

Father Renninger added, “He is accessible, not ‘Father Standoffish.’ He is genuine, joyful and passionate about his faith. He is passionate about encouraging other people to grow in their faith.” 

As did Bilbo Baggins, Deacon Ferguson is enjoying his adventure. 

“It’s totally been an adventure for sure. I mean, God has revealed so much about who I am as a person, who he is as God, and yeah, I’m very grateful,” he said. 

Editor’s note: Due to social distancing, attendance at the ordination Mass is by invitation only. The livestream of the Mass will begin at 10:30 a.m., Saturday, July 11, on the diocesan website, www.richmonddiocese.org.  

Help from two saints

It is no coincidence that Deacon Anthony Ferguson and St. Jeanne Jugan have a personal connection. Her feast day is August 30, which is his birthday. 

“She’s been looking out for me for a while,” he said.

Beyond that, however, he has had a fondness for the religious community she established, the Little Sisters of the Poor, since his days at the University of Richmond.

“I would help out at the French Food Festival (the sisters’ major fundraiser) and drew cartoons for the kids who attended,” he said. “I helped them with graphic design, too.”

What he terms “a hilarious nudge” to consider priesthood came about while he was involved in a young adult group in Richmond. 

“A friend of mine, Emma, said, ‘I’m going down to the Little Sisters for this thing they call the hospitality club. It’s like a service thing; you should come,’” Deacon Ferguson recalled.

When Sister Joseph Marie answered the door, he told her why he was there. She told him hospitality club was for women’s discernment for joining the Little Sisters.   

“Oh, I guess I’ll just go home then,” he said.

“Oh, no, no, no,” she replied. “We’ll put you to work.”

They sent him to the basement to paint, but he wasn’t dressed for painting.

“’Don’t worry,’” he recalled her saying. “‘We’ll find something.’”

What they found was a clerical shirt.

“This was before I was even thinking about seminary,” he said. “I put it on, and they took pictures, and they were like, ‘Oh, you would make a really good priest!’”

And the role of St. Jeanne Jugan?

“I look back at that and think that in kind of a very subtle way — in that weird way God works — that Jeanne Jugan was putting something into my mind that I had not thought of before.”

Another saint he reveres is Anthony of Padua to whom a chapel in the Troy Hill section of Pittsburgh is dedicated and where Deacon Ferguson’s grandfather, for whom he is named, would go to pray daily. 

“My grandfather, who died before I was born, had a very close devotion to St. Anthony, partially because he credited him with protecting him during World War II,” he said. “He was a paratrooper, and as he was jumping out of a plane, he got shot right across the forehead. He credited the direction of that bullet to the intercession of St. Anthony.”

Deacon Ferguson said while people know the saint helps in finding lost items, there is a lesser known aspect of his life that drew him to the saint.

“He was a really fantastic preacher. So I ask him constantly to help me with my homilies and to practice what I preach,” he said.

– Brian T. Olszewski