To those of you who were looking for the Our Lady of Good Help post, it will return either tomorrow or next Tuesday, depending upon how much time I have on my hands. Today’s saint was so important for an aspiring Carmelite, I had to post on her.
Happy feast day; most especially to all Carmelites. Today we celebrate the feast of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, also known as St. Edith Stein; a brilliant woman and convert from Judaism and atheism. St. Teresa offered herself as a bride of Christ, along with her crucified spouse, as a martyr in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. She lived under the loving shadow of the Cross, and died carrying it’s sweet burden.
Edith Stein was born on October 12, 1891 in Breslau, Germany (which is now Wroclaw Poland) to a well-off Jewish family. Edith was the eleventh child born to Siegfried and Auguste Stein; however four of Edith’s siblings died soon after birth. Tragedy struck again with the death of Edith’s father – she was just two years old at the time of Siegfried Stein’s sudden death. This left Edith’s mother, Auguste Stein, in charge of the family and their business. Auguste was a remarkably strong woman, with a faith and will profoundly rooted in Judaism. She loved her children deeply and did her best to bring up her children strong in faith (Love One Another Magazine, Fr. M. Piotrowski SChr 3).
However, despite her mother’s gentleness and love, Edith rebelled against Judaism, and all religion for that matter. By age fifteen, she was a self proclaimed atheist. Yet even in her atheism, God was still calling Edith and drawing her to Himself. He had given Edith a brilliant, philosophical mind and a curiosity for Truth.
This curiosity led her to enter the University of Breslau, in 1911, to study psychology. Edith also studied history and German language. Then, in 1913, Edith transferred to the University of Gottingen to study phenomenology under the world-renowned philosopher, Edmund Hurrserl. When World War I broke out, Edith interrupted her studies to volunteer as a nurse in the Red Cross. She served in 1915, in a field hospital at Moravia. When the war ended, she went back to the University and excelled in her studies. In 1916 she received her doctorate in philosophy at the Freiburg University. Because of her great achievement and brilliance, Edith was invited by professor Edmund Hurrserl, to work as his assistant (Love One Another Magazine, Fr. M. Piotrowski SChr 5-6).
In 1921, an event occurred which changed Edith’s life, resolved her quest for Truth and ultimately manifested her vocation. She was at the home of some university friends, and to pass the time, randomly reached for a book and started to read it. This book was the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila, The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila. As Edith read this book, she found that she could not put it down, and read it cover to cover in one night. The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila had a profound impact on Edith and as she herself said: “This is the Truth.”
Not long after, on January 1, 1922, Edith was baptized and entered the Holy Catholic Church. This was difficult for her family to accept, for at this time the Nazi party was growing strong in Germany. Edith’s family believed that she was abandoning them to the persecutions of the Nazis. Edith took her conversion one step further by entering the Discalced Carmelite Convent at Cologne. Edith had desired to enter the convent at the time of her baptism, however due to her mother’s sorrow and pain, she waited until 1933 to enter (Love One Another Magazine, Fr. M. Piotrowski SChr 8).
Edith Stein entered Carmel in 1933 and took the name of Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. After she entered the convent, she continued to use her brilliance to bring souls to Christ. Despite the dangers of writing and publishing – after all, she was a convert from Judaism, and a Catholic Nun – Teresa continued to write and publish – even as the Nazis were taking over Europe.
On November 9, 1938, the infamous Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht) took place. Civilians and SA stormtroopers ransacked the homes, shops and villages of the German and Austrian Jews. Ninety-one Jews were killed and thirty-thousand were sent to concentration camps. Seeing the destruction and hate all around her, Teresa feared for the safety of the other sisters. If she should be captured, the other sisters might be taken as well. The other sisters loved Teresa and did not want to see her captured. So together they decided to transfer Sister Teresa to a convent that was a little further away from the epicenter of hate. On New Year’s Eve, of 1938, Teresa and her biological sister Rosa, who had converted to Catholicism three years before, were smuggled across the border to a Carmelite Convent in the Netherlands. They resided in the Convent in the town of Echt(Love One Another Magazine, Fr. M. Piotrowski SChr 7).
However, in 1940, the Nazis invaded the Netherlands. Teresa was again in danger; rather than leave, she stayed in the convent at Echt despite the persecution around her.
In June of 1942, the courageous Dutch bishops publicly denounced the Nazi party and they refused to retract their statements (Love One Another Magazine, Fr. M. Piotrowski SChr 10). This infuriated the Nazis, and in retaliation they arrested all Catholics of Jewish origin. In August of 1942, Teresa Benedicta and her sister, Rosa Stein, were arrested and sent to Auschwitz (Saint of the Day, Leonard Foley O.F.M. & Pat McCloskey 199). On August 9, 1942, Teresa and her sister were executed in the gas chambers, one week after their arrival. In the time between her arrival and her execution, Teresa accomplished much in the women’s barracks. She helped to cool the hate by serving the other prisoners with an air of calmness and peace (Drink of the Stream, Penny Hickey O.C.D.S. 307).
Teresa Benedicta of the Cross was beatified by Blessed John Paul II in 1987. In 1998, he canonized Teresa. St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross – Pray for us!!!
Sources which I utilized include:
Bread of Heaven, compiled by Penny Hickey, OCDS, Ave Maria Press, 2006.
Drink of The Stream, Prayers of the Carmelites, compiled by Penny Hickey, OCDS, Ignatius Press, 2002.
“From Atheism to Sainthood,” in Love One Another Magazine, by Fr. M. Piotrowski SChr, Issue 9, 2008.
Saint of The Day, (5th ed)., Leonard Foley, OFM, and Pat McCloskey, OFM (editors), St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1986.
Saints for Young Readers for Every Day Vol 2, Susan Helen Wallace FSP and Melissa Wright, Pauline Books, 2004.
If you would like to learn even more about this great saint, you may wish to contact Fr Jude Peters OCD, Prior of Holy Hill, Vicar Provincial, and Shrine Minister, or Fr. Cyril Guise OCD, Shrine Minister and Director of Development, both serving the Basilica of Holy Hill. I have had the privilege of hearing both of them speak about St. Teresa, to whom they have a deep devotion.