A Buddhist becomes Catholic

The conversion story of Deena Bell of Springfield


About one percent of Americans are Buddhists, so having a Buddhist convert to Catholicism is about as rare as it comes. Growing up in Hawaii, Deena Bell of Springfield, remembers her Buddhist upbringing, which centered on the pursuit of enlightenment, guided by the teachings of the Buddha, to transcend suffering and attain inner peace.

“My mom always said life is about suffering and as we grow, we become enlightened,” Bell recalls. “So, we understood when we suffer, if we lived rightly, suffering will lead to an enlightenment or understanding to accept the suffering and make good of it.”

For more than 30 years, Bell lived life as a “cultural Buddhist” with Catholicism not on her mind.

“I never perceived Catholics or any religion as ‘wrong,’” Bell said. “In my mind, they just weren’t ‘enlightened.’ I found it somewhat strange that they (Catholics) insisted on having statues and images of people suffering (crucifix). I found it super strange people would gather together and recall how their venerated person (Jesus) was scourged, spit on, and died on a cross.”

Little did she know, the faith she thought was “strange,” would eventually become her new way of life. Her faith life took this rapid turn when she moved to Springfield in 1991. She and her husband, Calvin, a Southern Baptist at the time, moved to Springfield after both of them left the Army and wanted to start a family. Calvin was a doctor (now retired) and Deena was a critical care nurse (now retired). They both wanted a family and agreed that it would be best to have one faith in the house. For Calvin, he recalled during his college life at the University of Notre Dame, how impressed he was with one of the priests on campus. He was struck by his humility and sense of caring and love. For Deena, she was struck by the tremendous compassion and support from the Catholic community for their constant support of the vulnerable and most in need.

“When I worked in public health as a nurse, whenever we would need help for patients, we always went to Catholic Charities first,” Bell said. “I also had a good eye for good people. When I looked back at who were the people I chose to be my closest friends, the common denominator among them was they were all Catholic. They were also church-goers. Even after a late night out in college, they always went to Mass on Sunday. I always found that remarkable, especially since I wasn’t a church-goer at the time.”

So, after moving to Springfield and looking more into the Catholic faith, the couple both decided to become Catholic. They enrolled in the Right of Christian Initiation (RCIA) program at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Springfield and she says that “they were hooked ever since.” She recalls with a laugh how Calvin read the Catechism of the Catholic Church two times and highlighted and flagged text so much, the book “looked like a pom-pom with so many feathers hanging out.”

Bell admits that during her conversion process, she struggled with one Church teaching, but it was her medical background that ultimately helped her understand and accept it with joy.

“It was the idea that God had a human mother who gave birth to him,” she said. “I accepted the idea of God being divine. I could even accept the concept of the Holy Spirit.    The humanity of God was difficult for me. Then I asked myself, ‘Whose DNA do you think Jesus had? Where do you think he got the skin that was pierced for us? Where did He get the hands to be nailed for us, the blood to be shed for us, the body to walk this earth and preach, and perform miracles?’ Having a medical background, I appreciated the biology behind this part. He got his humanity from his mother, Mary!”

Deena and Calvin were welcomed into the Catholic Church in 1996. Today, the couple have three children and are parishioners at Blessed Sacrament.

While going from Buddhism to Catholicism is a far greater leap than a non-Catholic Christian becoming Catholic, as Bell looks back, she sees how some aspects of Buddhism prepared her for her new faith.

“The understanding that through suffering, we can achieve a higher or deeper spiritual formation is one,” Bell said. “Also, remembering the dead every year and praying for them. Veneration for the dead is celebrated in an entire season in the Buddhist religion. The belief that humans can achieve a higher level of sanctity through prayer, sacrifice, and virtue. Attachment to the material world and what is purely sensory can hinder spiritual growth and cause suffering. In fact, detachment is liberating from suffering. This common ground helped.”

When asked what her favorite things about the Catholic faith are, Bell’s love for the faith is so enthusiastic, she has a long list.

“God’s Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity truly present in the Eucharist to dwell in us to eternity! Are you serious? Wow!” Bell said. “I find the liturgy intoxicating. There is so much going on in our liturgy. I find it has an infinite nature which I try to enter into, and I can exhaust myself trying if I let my over zealousness take over. I absolutely love the infinite nature of the liturgical seasons and cycles. My favorite season is Lent as I love the Stations of the Cross, the readings, and writings. I try to make sure our home reflects the seasons in some way. Lent helps me exercise silence and stillness. So does attending adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Oh, and the holy writings of so many people gone before us! They are so rich, bountiful, and insightful! And, all those miracles we have been gifted with! Eucharistic miracles, Marian apparitions, incorruptible saints. Need I go on?”