Feast Day : August 9
Also known as: Edith Stein, Teresia Benedicta
Edith Stein, who was to convert to Christianity and take the religious name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, was born on October 12, 1891, in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland), as her Jewish family was celebrating Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Her father died when she was two, and by the time she was 13, Edith had lost faith in God and trust in Judaism. She entered the University of Breslau in 1911, when matriculation was opened to women. Although she studied German and history there, she was more interested in philosophy and women’s issues. She became a member of the Prussian Society for Women’s Suffrage, and in 1913 transferred to the University of Göttingen to study under philosopher Edmund Husserl, the father of phenomenology. She graduated with distinction in January 1915. After training as a nurse, she volunteered for work in a field hospital during World War I, receiving the medal of valor when she completed her term of service. In 1916, she went with Husserl to the University of Freiburg, where she worked as his teaching assistant while studying for her doctoral degree. She graduated summa cum laude in 1917, and the following year left her position with Husserl. She hoped to obtain a professorship, a career not then generally open to women in Germany, but was unable to find a job. Returning to Breslau, she began writing articles about the philosophical foundation of psychology. She also read t New Testament, Kierkegaard, the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola and an autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. Of the last she later wrote, “When I had finished the book, I said to myself: this is the truth.” Edith had gradually been drawn to Catholicism, and reading Teresa of Avila was the final push she needed. She was baptized on January 1, 1922, and confirmed by the bishop of Speyer in his private chapel. She wanted to join a Carmelite convent immediately, but was persuaded not to do so. However, she took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and found a position teaching German and history at the Dominican Sisters’ school and teacher-training college in Speyer. In 1932, she accepted a position at the University of Münster, but a year later anti-Semitic legislation forced her out. On October 14, 1933, she joined the Discalced Carmelite cloister in Cologne, taking the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She donned the habit in April 1934, took her temporary vows a year later, and her perpetual vows on April 21, 1938. As the anti-Semitic rhetoric and actions of the Nazis became more strident, Edith (now Teresa) requested transfer to a convent outside Germany. On New Year’s Eve of 1938, the prioress of the Cologne convent helped her get to the Discalced Carmelite convent of Echt in the Netherlands. She and her sister Rosa, also a convert to Christianity, remained there until they were arrested by the Gestapo on August 2, 1942—among 200 Catholic Jews arrested in the Netherlands in reprisal for a pastoral letter written by Dutch Catholic bishops against the Nazi pogroms and deportations of Jews. In a holding camp on the way to Auschwitz, Teresa is said to have given support and solace to many. On August 7, she and Rosa were carried to Auschwitz; they died in the gas chambers there on August 9. Teresa authored several books, both before and during her Carmelite period. These include Potency and Act, a study of the central concepts developed by Thomas Aquinas, and Finite and Being, considered her magnum opus. When she was removed from Echt, she had almost completed The Science of the Cross, a study of St. John of the Cross. She is also remembered for her activism on behalf of women’s rights. As a martyr, under new Church rules, Teresa was automatically beatified, which meant that she needed only one certified miracle to become a saint. In 1997, the Vatican recognized the cure of an American girl as a miracle via Teresa’s intercession, and the way for her canonization was cleared.