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Raised a Muslim, she’s now Sr. Katherine


In the midst of shock and grief wrought by the events of Sept. 11, Sr. Katherine Chuston’s thoughts kept returning to her father.

Michael Chuston, who died last year at 76, was a retired Chicago city worker and a World War II veteran who’d been awarded a Purple Heart for his service at Guadalcanal. He was also a Muslim.

“I was wondering what he would think of all this,” said Chuston, who recently took final vows as a School Sister of St. Francis.

She can’t help but believe he would have agonized along with the rest of the country over the American response. Though she thinks he’d probably agree with the decision of military action, he’d remain concerned about the effects of war on women and children.

Raised a Muslim, Chuston credited her parents with providing a good spiritual grounding that included tolerance and love -- a foundation not even terrorist attacks can shake.

Last month in the community house chapel here, during a liturgy that marked her profession of final vows to the order, a small table to the right of the altar held a vase with two roses and a copy of the Quran. Amidst friends, family and community members who celebrated with her, she did not want to forget her father and mother, who is also deceased. The flowers represented their presence, the Quran, their Islamic faith.

Chuston, 39, had been planning details of this liturgy long before Sept. 11. Since then, she worried over this gesture, talking to some of the sisters about the sensitivity of including her grandfather’s copy of the Quran near the altar. They told her it belonged there.

“That really says a lot,” she said. “It does speak of peace these days. And it speaks of my heritage. I don’t want to negate who I am because of Sept. 11.”

Both of her Muslim grandfathers were Bosnian immigrants who came to the United States early in the 20th century. Both married Catholic women who agreed to give up their faith and raise their children in the religion of Islam.

Chuston grew up in Chicago an only child. Both her mother, who was the secretary to a city alderman, and her father were precinct captains, political party appointees expected to keep Chicago-area voters placated -- generally just prior to elections -- by handling requests for favors ranging from new garbage cans to parking permits. Chuston, however, recalled the family’s phone ringing constantly and her parents meeting the needs of constituents year-round.

Other childhood memories include mosques, prayers in Arabic and holiday parties celebrating the breaking of the month-long fast of Ramadan. But she can also remember Christmas trees and Easter eggs. Eventually, while she was growing up, Islamic practices in her home waned.

“Although my parents had a very deep faith in God, they weren’t necessarily devout Muslims. I mean, once I reached about age 10 or so, they really didn’t go to services that much anymore,” she said.

Some relatives were Christian -- primarily Catholic, and family ties supported diversity. Chuston recalled attending weddings in Catholic churches.

Catholicism held another influence as well. As a teenager, Chuston’s mother had volunteered her time with a women’s religious community of St. Vincent de Paul. At one point she considered joining the order, but was afraid of angering her family.

She did, however, send her daughter to Chicago’s Madonna High School.

Raised with a European influence, Chuston did not wear a veil or the full-length covering that many Middle Eastern Muslim women do, but teachers and students were aware of her religion. Still, she doesn’t remember any harassment.

“I was really open to everyone about my heritage. I was proud of it. Sometimes my parents would be a little hesitant.

“They would tell me to be careful, and I would say, ‘Who cares? This is who we are.’ ”

Initially, Chuston had balked at going to Madonna, an all-girls school. By the time she was 15, she found the teachers and curriculum there were feeding a growing interest in religion. She thought about reaching deeper into Islam or turning to Judaism, but was drawn to Catholicism.

She was baptized in December 1979. Though her parents were supportive of the decision, her maternal grandmother was wary. A priest had publicly humiliated her family when she’d married a Muslim. Eventually, Chuston said, her grandmother met parish members, saw a more tolerant church and gave her approval.

Chuston volunteered at her parish, but as a young legal secretary in her early 20s, she sought a career that would allow her to serve others.

After an introductory visit to a Carmelite community in St. Louis didn’t work out, she shelved the idea of joining a religious order. Her mother’s death in 1991 compelled her to reconsider. A meeting with the vocations office of the Chicago archdiocese led her to the School Sisters of St. Francis. She felt a strong connection.

Currently executive secretary to the president of the congregation at St. Joseph Center in Milwaukee, Chuston was working the morning of Sept. 11 when community and center employees were called to see television news reports.

She’s troubled by Islamic extremist Osama bin Laden’s pronouncements that pit Muslims against Americans and the backlash his words incite.

“I feel that 99 percent of the people of Islamic background all over the world are also being taken hostage, so to speak, by bin Laden or any of his followers, or any terrorists anywhere,” she said. “My heart goes out to the people of Islamic religion, a beautiful, peaceful, ancient faith tradition. I chose to convert from Islam to Catholicism not because I was against Islam, but because I found something in the Catholic faith that really spoke to me and continues to speak to me. But I feel badly for the people who are being harassed or the people who are being exploited by bin Laden and the Taliban in Afghanistan. And I strongly believe that it is not only the United States that is being targeted by terrorists but the entire religion of Islam.

“Our nation has been through and is still going through a very emotional time,” she said, “and when emotions are heightened, sometimes we don’t think clearly. It gives the opportunity for some people who do have very narrow-minded views to promote their agendas. But I still believe that the majority of people in this country are tolerant of diversity.”

She sees hope in a declining number of reported retaliatory hate crimes against Muslims and Jews but understands the fear and anger.

“I know that I, too, was angry at first. I couldn’t believe that somebody would do this, harm all that innocent life. Who could have done this? And my first thought was, ‘I don’t care who did it, just get them.’ But prayer definitely helps you to think a little more clearly.

If you’re a thinking person, you have to move beyond the initial anger, the shock and ask, ‘What is right? What does the gospel tell us?’ We need to be people of nonviolence and we shouldn’t be bombing Afghanistan right now.”

Being a member of an international religious community has given her a fresh perspective. Two of the sisters she lives with are Latin American natives, and while they respected the grief their community felt, they also reminded members of some of the exploitive U.S. foreign policies, especially to developing countries, that give rise to such anger.

Chuston still has plenty of questions on international relations, such as why America is so involved with Israel, and she’s determined to become more educated in her search for the answers. As a Franciscan, she also reflects deeply on addressing violence in her personal world and applying the gospel message in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

She remembered the homily of a priest friend several years ago. “It wasn’t too long after Jeffrey Dahmer [a convicted serial killer whose grisly homicides made the national media] was in the news, and [the priest] said that if we really believe in the gospel, then we have to believe that God loves Jeffrey Dahmer, too.

“Well, then you have to say the same thing about Osama bin Laden and all his lieutenants,” Chuston said. “They have mothers and fathers and children. And it’s not easy to say that. It’s very difficult to even think about that. You want to demonize the enemy, but are they the enemies? Although the Taliban is a corrupt regime and Osama bin Laden is an evil person, they are still people, and so are those civilians who are living there in crushing poverty.”

Margaret Plevak is a writer for the Catholic Herald, the newspaper of the Milwaukee archdiocese.

National Catholic Reporter, November 9, 2001