As a girl, Betty Hewitt attended Sunday Masses spoken in Latin. As Sister Catherine Robert, she prayed along in English. These days, Betty Ali studies Arabic to better know the Quran.
“People might think it’s a dramatic thing to go from being a Catholic nun to being a Muslim,” Ali, 71, said.
“But it’s not,” she said. “The values are identical.”
As such, her journey from the largest Christian denomination in the United States to a faith many view with concern these days feels, she says, “very, very natural.”
The killings some “disturbed” Muslims commit in God’s name are horrific, she says, but she knows too well how violence can come from any quarter. In 1982, a hit man murdered her sister, brother-in-law, and a young niece after mistaking their house in Pine Hill for another.
So, at a time when some politicians are calling for a ban on Muslims - “that would include me if I left and tried to come back,” she supposes - this white-haired widow feels it’s time to tell her story.
Hers is a faith journey she could not have imagined growing up in Southwest Philadelphia, where “everybody in my neighborhood was Catholic.”
Holy Communion, confession, rosaries, saints, hymns, holy water, blessed medals, relics, Mary, the pope, crucifixes - all this filled her childhood back in the 1950s, and how could it not?
She belonged to Most Blessed Sacrament parish at 56th Street and Chester Avenue, home then to the largest Catholic grammar school in the world.
“We had 3,400 pupils. A hundred children in each class,” Ali marveled.
Unlike the boys, whose unruly ways the nuns combated with smacks and scoldings, “as girls we were told we were ‘good as gold,’ “ she said.
Leaving this safe world of God’s special favor was unthinkable. After grammar school she entered West Catholic High School for Girls, two miles from home. Seven orders of nuns taught at West, “but the Sisters of St. Joseph taught English,” she said. “I loved English classes, and I loved the Sisters of St. Joseph.”
As she approached graduation in 1962 she announced to her parents she wished to join the St. Joseph sisters. “Whatever will make you happy will make us happy,” they said.
She would take their first names - Catherine and Robert - as her religious name, which she would wear for 18 years.
After taking vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and armed with an undergraduate degree in English and a master’s in theology, she taught happily in parish schools around the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the Diocese of Camden, and Maryland.
“I loved teaching. I loved the children,” Ali recalled with a fond, faraway look. “The whole fit was right for me.”
But just as Sisters of St. Joseph would modernize and finally discard their traditional habit, Sister Catherine Robert’s Catholic identity was evolving.
Privately she was chafing at religious life without quite grasping the depth of her feelings.
Then, in April 1980, she was teaching at St. Francis of Assisi parish school in Germantown when she got a call from the mother house informing her the order wished her to start teaching religion in a high school that fall.
“It was my dream assignment, and out my mouth I said: ‘I can’t do it. I’m planning to leave.’ “
Ali shook her head at the memory. “I’d never had a conscious thought of leaving. Never,” she said.
She was 36.
Her superiors instructed her to “write a letter to the pope” explaining her reasons for wanting to be released from vows.
“So I wrote to the pope . . . and I explained that I had been studying [summers] at a liberal Catholic college, University of Dayton, and been opened to so many new ideas.
“And I said I could no longer wear this habit because so many strangers just assumed I . . . agreed with everything the church taught, like [its ban on] contraception.”
She did not tell Rome she also found herself questioning core Catholic beliefs such as Jesus’ physical presence in Holy Communion. Despite her creeping apostasy, “some things stayed with me,” like discomfort with abortion. She would stop going to Mass but still saw herself as Catholic.
“My first job,” she said, “was pumping gas in Moorestown.”
Her younger sister Catherine, or “Cass” - who would be murdered two years later - had advice: “Don’t tell anyone you were a nun or they’ll be afraid to hire you.”
Betty Hewitt substitute-taught in Catholic grammar schools, then began a career as an insurance claims examiner, with stints in human relations.
In 1982 she was living in Willow Grove when she got a call from her parents beseeching her to come right away to their home in Cherry Hill.
She arrived to find her father crying “for the first time I’d ever seen.” Cass and her husband and their daughter had been shot dead. Their older daughter, Miriam, 3, had survived. Later they learned someone else was the assassin’s actual target.
“I cried for the next 10 years,” Ali says.
One year after the killings, she struck up a conversation with a woman at a supermarket. Both were single, and the woman proposed they go together to a singles’ dance at a church in Blue Bell.
There Hewitt met Mohsen “Mo” Ali, a naturalized citizen and civil engineer from Egypt, three years her junior, and “the first Muslim I’d ever met.”
They met again at a restaurant that Monday “and it was like instant, instant, instant heavy-duty magic,” she said. Two years later they were married.
“He said prayers every day,” she said, “but he didn’t worry about the things he didn’t do,” like miss a Friday prayer service. “He would say the most important thing was just to help other people as much as you can, and that’s what he did.”
“We just lived our lives” with no thought to her ever converting.
Then one day in 2006 he said, “ ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we could go to Mecca together?’ and I’m thinking, ‘You have to be Muslim to go.’ “
Mo’s question started her thinking about “the need for community,” and when he decided to pay a visit in 2006 to the new Muslim American Community Center then rising in Voorhees, she joined him.
“Do you think you might ever become Muslim?” the center’s founding president, Zia Rahman, asked.
“Never,” she replied.
“I said, ‘Because I’m American and I believe women are equal to men.’ He said, ‘Women are equal to men in Islam.’
“So I said, ‘I don’t think I can ever wear a head scarf.’ And he said: ‘You don’t have to wear a head scarf. You just have to dress modestly.’ “
She started reading the Quran and a 2007 biography of the prophet Muhammad by Karen Armstrong, herself a former nun, “and I started coming around.”
The Quran, she found, was studded with references to Abraham and Moses, and “Jesus is mentioned more than Muhammad.”
” ‘Love your neighbor and practice forgiveness,’ that’s the core of all the Abrahamic religions,” she concluded.
On Dec. 8, 2008, her husband stood by her at the mosque as she rose before the congregation to recite in Arabic Islam’s simple declaration of commitment: La ilaha illallah, Muhammad rasool Allah, or: “I testify that there is only one God, and Muhammad is his prophet.”
She and Mo became active in the Voorhees masjid. She wears a head scarf when she attends or recites prayers at home, but not in public. Muslim and Christian feel no more substantial than the Sunni-Shiite difference her husband ignored. He died of heart failure on Easter 2011.
“You don’t have to call yourself either one,” she says. “It’s how you treat other people that’s important.” The people who do violence in the name of Islam are, she says, “mentally ill” or “lost souls.”
Yet their unholy jihads have so alarmed people that American Muslims must, she believes, get to better know their neighbors, and their neighbors them.
It was a point she heard driven home at Cherry Hill’s Woodcrest Country Club, where Khizr Khan, the Muslim father of a U.S. Army captain killed in the Iraq war, reminded Pakistani-born physicians that “you are no longer immigrants. You’re Americans.”
Khan, a Virginia lawyer who addressed the Democratic National Convention in July - drawing mockery from Donald Trump - “told us we should get involved in charitable organizations, invite our neighbors over for dinner, run for office, join interfaith groups, and vote in this election.”
By David O’Reilly