St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross was born into the Jewish faith, was an atheist, a doctor of philosophy and ultimately became a Carmelite sister. Sadly, this fascinating woman was martyred for her faith as part of the tragic history of the Holocaust.
Born Edith Stein on Yom Kippur, Oct. 12, 1891, in Breslau, Germany, Edith was the youngest of 11 children in a very observant Jewish family. Her father died when she was just two and her family struggled to make ends meet. Despite hard times, her mother was a strong woman of deep faith who encouraged all of her children toward advanced education. Although Edith admired her mother’s faith, she became an atheist during her young years, discouraged by how hard her family’s life had become after her father’s death.
Edith was an exemplary student. As an adult, she attended the University of Breslau majoring in history. She transferred to the Gottingen University to study with the philosopher Edmund Husserl. While there, she met many Catholic intellectuals who inspired her. Edith’s philosophy studies were interrupted by World War I, when she trained as a nurse and worked in a hospital for the Red Cross. She later completed her doctorate in philosophy in Aug. 1916, presenting her thesis on “The Problem of Empathy.” Because she was a woman, and Jewish, Edith was discouraged from applying for a senior teaching chair and instead worked as a teaching assistant at the University of Freiburg.
In 1921, Edith read the biography of St. Teresa of Avila and was profoundly changed by the experience. She said “When I had finished the book, I said to myself: This is the truth…. My longing for truth was a single prayer.” She was baptized on Jan. 1, 1922 and wished to immediately enter religious life as a Carmelite, but was discouraged by her spiritual advisors, since they felt it was so soon after her baptism.
Edith then took a teaching position at the Dominican School in Speyer. While there, she translated many works, including St. Thomas Aquinas’ De Veritate (Of Truth) into German. She also served as a college lecturer.
Legislation by the Nazi government forced Edith to resign her teaching post in 1933, as the Nazis required an “Aryan certificate” — a document which certified that a person was part of the Aryan race — for civil servants. In Oct. 1933, she was admitted to the Discalced Carmelite order and took the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. While in religious life, she wrote the “Finite and Eternal Being” which combined the philosophies of Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus and Husserl.
The atmosphere in Germany became darker and more dangerous for Jewish people, so the Carmelites had Sister Teresa and her sister Rosa (who had also converted and become a tertiary Carmelite) sent to Echt, Netherlands for their safety. There, Sister Teresa continued to write, authoring, “Studies on John of the Cross: The Science of the Cross.” The Carmelite saint was dear to Sister Teresa: when she had made her final vows in 1938, she had the words of St. John of the Cross printed on her devotional picture: “Henceforth my only vocation is to love.”
While in the Netherlands, Sister Teresa continued teaching, offering lessons in Latin and philosophy to her fellow sisters. Although the Nazis had invaded the Netherlands in 1940, they made exceptions in their horrifying policies for Jewish people who had converted to Christianity. However, the Nazis were challenged on July 20, 1942 when the Dutch Bishops Conference made a public statement condemning Nazi racism.
In retaliation, the Nazi leader in the Netherlands ordered the arrest of all Jewish converts; Sister Teresa and her sister were taken into custody by the SS in the chapel at the convent. They, along with 243 other converts, were officially arrested on Aug. 2, 1942. They were eventually taken to the death camp at Auschwitz. It is believed that Sister Teresa and many others were killed in the gas chamber on Aug. 9, 1942. A professor who was a dear friend to Sister Teresa later said of her: “She is a witness to God’s presence in a world where God is absent.”
Sister Teresa was canonized as a martyr by Pope John Paul II on Oct. 11, 1998. She was also honored as a “daughter of Israel.” There is controversy regarding her sainthood and martyrdom. Some consider her death to be singularly related to her Jewish origins. The position of the Church is that she was killed because her death was a result of the retaliation of the Nazis against Church teaching, thus making her a martyr.
She is one of the patron saints of Europe.
Sister Teresa’s feast day is August 9.
Her official Vatican biography can be found here: http://www.vatican.va/news_services/liturgy/saints/ns_lit_doc_19981011_edith_stein_en.html
Her writings are available for purchase at any online retailer, including this: https://www.amazon.com/Edith-Stein-Essential-Writings-Spiritual/dp/1570754284
The Carmelites of Boston offer this prayer: