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The Glorious Journey of Edith Stein from Atheist to Patron Saint of Europe

St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

"Edith Stein und Maximilian Kolbe" by Anne-Madeleine Plum - Photograph of original work.

Sr. M. Michele Jascenia, SCMC - published on 08/09/14

On August 9, 1942, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross was martyred in a gas chamber at Auschwitz. Her legacy remains.

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On the 12th of October 1891, a baby girl was born to an Orthodox Jewish family, the youngest of their 11 children. It seems providential that Edith Stein would enter the world on Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement—the holiest of holy day for Jews. God had extraordinary plans for Edith, though her journey was not at all what anyone would have expected. The mission God had mapped out for her would surprise even Edith herself.  

Edith Stein was an intellectual, a philosopher. She worked as a nursing assistant during the First World War, and later earned a doctorate in philosophy. Edith became an atheist, having no use for religion in her teenage years and into young womanhood. She was preoccupied by her studies, by science, by philosophy, by the Great War, by life. She felt no need for God or the things of God. In other words, she was much like many young, well-educated people today, fully-absorbed with life and unconcerned with eternal life.

Yet through seemingly insignificant encounters, God began calling her into a life in the spirit. She happened upon a woman praying in the Frankfurt Cathedral and was impressed by the piety of Christians who visit churches even when nothing special is going on. She visited the widow of a dear friend who had died in combat in Flanders and was amazed at the young woman’s profound faith and her faith-filled resignation. Edith remarked:

“This was my first encounter with the Cross and the divine power it imparts to those who bear it…it was the moment when my unbelief collapsed and Christ began to shine His light on me—Christ the Mystery of the Cross.”  

God had opened the door to Edith’s mind and heart.

A few years later, at a friend’s house, Edith found a copy of the autobiography of Saint Teresa of Avila and stayed up through the night to read it. Edith knew then that she had found the truth. She was baptized only months later, on January 1, 1922. Still, the Lord had not finished with her transformation.

Because of her keen intellect, her sense of wonder, her love for learning and the pursuit of truth, she came to know and love God. That knowledge made Edith want to know more, want to love more, and want to give her all for him. She desired to give to God her mind, her gifts, her energy, her heart. Edith felt drawn to the Discalced Carmelite Order, but delayed an immediate move toward religious life, out of respect for her mother who had been deeply hurt by Edith’s conversion to Catholicism.

In 1933, however, Edith lost her teaching position when the Nazis sought to purge the civil service of all non-Aryans. She then entered the Carmel in Cologne and took the name Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. There she was drawn to the life and spirituality of Thérèse of Lisieux. These early years as a Carmelite in Europe would be the beginning of Sister Teresa Benedicta’s own share in the cross of Christ. The persecution of Jews was beginning.

With the “election” of Hitler in 1938, the persecution of Jews became more systematic and more open. In 1938, her Carmelite superior in Cologne transferred St. Teresa Benedicta and her sister, Rosa (who had also become Catholic as was a Carmelite extern) to a Carmel in Echt, Holland to get them out of harm’s way.  

St. Teresa Benedicta penned a prophetic “testament” on June 6, 1939, in which she wrote:

"I beg the Lord to take my life and my death … for all concerns of the sacred hearts of Jesus and Mary and the holy church, especially for the preservation of our holy order, in particular the Carmelite monasteries of Cologne and Echt, as atonement for the unbelief of the Jewish People, and that the Lord will be received by his own people and his kingdom shall come in glory, for the salvation of Germany and the peace of the world, at last for my loved ones, living or dead, and for all God gave to me: that none of them shall go astray."

Following the 1940 Nazi invasion and occupation of the Netherlands, her wiling sacrifice drew closer. In response to a statement by the Dutch Bishops Conference in 1942, condemning the Nazis’ persecution and deportation of Jews, the Gestapo raided religious communities in the Netherlands to arrest and deport any Jewish converts who’d been sheltered there.

On the 2nd of August, 1942, Sister Teresa Benedicta and her sister Rosa were arrested and hauled away. As they were being taken out of the convent, Edith was overheard telling Rosa, “Come, we are going for our people.”  

What an example of heroic resignation and selflessness! St. Teresa Benedicta’s love for God was so great that it would be poured out in love for her neighbors, love for her Jewish family and friends. Edith Stein knew that God had found her worthy of a martyr’s death and faced it courageously. Evidence points to the 9th of August 1942, as the date on which Sister Teresa Benedicta, her sister Rosa and many others went to their deaths in a gas chamber at Auschwitz.  

A great intellect was gone. A noble soul taken from this world, but she left us with an extraordinary example of a determined and sacrificial life, of a faith firm enough to endure cruelty and humiliation, a love of God and neighbor that overcame human fear and ultimately proved itself in her suffering and death. Sister Teresa Benedicta could have given so much more to the world, yet her death–offered, fittingly, in atonement for the unbelief of the Jewish people, for the salvation of Germany, the coming of God’s Kingdom and peace in the world–surpassed any natural offering she could have made in this life.  

Canonized in 1998 by Pope St. John Paul II, she is one of the six patron saints of Europe.

St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, pray for us, that we may come to love God and our neighbor with your spirit of complete sacrifice.

Sr. M. Michele Jascenia, SCMCis a religious with the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady Mother of the Church and resides at their Holy Family Motherhouse in Baltic, Conn. She teaches elementary school and is a freelance writer.

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