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

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

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

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."
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