PORTLAND – For Barbara Ferguson and Jessica Sturgis, their journey of faith neared its end Sunday night as they were recognized with more than 90 others as persons who are about to become members of the Catholic Church.

The women, who took very different paths before deciding they wanted to become Catholic, were welcomed during the church’s Rites of Election ceremony at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland.

The bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, Richard J. Malone, presided over the ceremony. Malone said the rite is the final step before catechumens (persons who have never been baptized) and candidates (those who have been baptized in other faiths) become full-fledged members of the Catholic Church.

He said their journey will end Easter weekend when the new members receive the sacraments during a special Mass.

“Each of us comes to Christ by different paths, but it is always the work of God’s grace in our hearts that leads us here,” Malone said.

According to the diocese, 279 people took part in Rites of Election ceremonies during the weekend at churches in Calais, Bangor, Lewiston and Portland. The ceremonies were held in conjunction with the season of Lent, which began on Ash Wednesday last week.

“The process of passage into the Catholic community usually takes a year or two. It’s to make sure the person is not making a (rushed) decision,” said Sue Bernard, spokeswoman for the diocese. “They need to be familiar with the rituals and tradition so that they enter with their eyes wide open.”

Bernard said the 2011 class of newcomers numbers about the same as last year.

The Catholic Church in Maine and nationally has seen its share of problems recently, with parishes closing, churches being consolidated and a shortage of priests. St. Andre Church in Biddeford, for example, celebrated its final Mass in December.

Bernard said the church is encouraged by the fact that people remain interested in the Catholic faith.

“This is good news for the church. We absolutely want to see people, especially adults, coming to us,” she said.

Bernard said there are about 190,000 Catholics in Maine, where there are 61 parishes and 163 active Catholic churches. That’s down from 2005, when there were 197,500 members, and 2000, when there were 215,000.

Catechumens and candidates must spend several months in study and reflection before becoming church members. In most cases, they have a sponsor who guides them along their path.

For Ferguson, the decision to become a Catholic seemed natural. Baptized as a Presbyterian, the 62-year-old Portland resident’s life experiences kept bringing her in contact with the Catholic religion. In the 1970s she lived with a Catholic family on St. Lucia, an island in the West Indies. At the time, she was a member of the Peace Corps.

“Their faith left a lasting impression,” she said.

After the Peace Corps, Ferguson served in Teacher Corps and met another Catholic. Jeanne Cosette Nolen became one of her best friends.

“I was impressed with how the Catholic faith had become a rock for her,” Ferguson said.

After working 24 years for Catholic Charities as a teacher of the visually impaired, Ferguson contacted the diocese last year, got a sponsor and began studying last October.

“For me, I needed a strong, vibrant faith based in tradition, especially in this day and age,” Ferguson said. “It’s something that can sustain you in a challenging 21st century. My life was a lot more simple when I was growing up. I wanted a (spiritual) rock, and this was it.”

Sturgis took a different path.

When she was a young girl growing up in Gorham, she and her mother would attend Mass with their next-door neighbors, who were devout Catholics.

“It was like family back then. I felt welcomed,” Sturgis said.

But she never joined a particular faith and was never baptized. Now, at age 31, Sturgis plans to get married in August to Aaron DiDonato, who was raised as a Catholic.

Sturgis, a customer service representative for Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, views her journey to become a Catholic as the right thing to do.

“My fiance is a really good person, and I think he is the way he is because of his (Catholic) upbringing,” said Sturgis, who lives in Gorham. “I don’t need to be a Catholic to get married in the Catholic Church, but this is how I want to raise my children.”

Sturgis acknowledged that the Catholic Church has seen its share of rough times, but believes the faith offers something that other religious denominations cannot.

“It’s very rich in tradition, unlike other faiths that seem to keep changing with the times,” she said.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

dhoey@pressherald.com