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Today’s saint was born into a prominent Jewish family in Breslau, Germany — now Wroclaw, Poland — just as her family was celebrating Yom Kippur, the most important Jewish festival, the Day of Atonement.
Her birth name was Edith Stein. Upon the death of her father when she was 2 years old, her mother had to look after the family and their large business. Having this great responsibility of being mother, father, head of the household and businesswoman, she failed to uphold a living faith in her children. Edith lost her faith in God.
As a student at the University of Göttingen, she studied philosophy and became a women’s suffragette. Her zeal somewhat tempered over her years of study. She said, “When I was at school and during my first year at university, I was a radical suffragette. Then I lost interest in the whole issue. Now I am looking for purely pragmatic solutions.”
She turned to philosophy, studied Catholicism and earned a degree in 1915.
When World War I broke out, she took a nursing course and served in an Austrian field hospital. This was a hard time for her, as she looked after the sick in the typhus ward, worked in an operating theater and saw young people die.
When the hospital was closed in 1916, she followed her professor Edmund Husserl as his assistant to Freiburg, Germany, where she received her doctorate summa cum laude in 1917, after writing a thesis on “The Problem of Empathy.”
While in Frankfurt cathedral she saw a woman with a shopping basket going in to kneel for a brief prayer. She said, “This was something totally new to me. In the synagogues and Protestant churches I had visited people simply went to the services. Here, however, I saw someone coming straight from the busy marketplace into this empty church, as if she were going to have an intimate conversation. It was something I never forgot.”
Toward the end of her dissertation she wrote, “There have been people who believed that a sudden change had occurred within them and that this was a result of God’s grace.”
Edith’s epiphany came during a visit to the widow of Husseri’s assistant. She felt uneasy about meeting the young widow at first, but was surprised when she actually met a woman of faith. “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 in the mystery of the Cross.”
Later, she wrote: “Things were in God’s plan which I had not planned at all. I am coming to the living faith and conviction that — from God’s point of view — there is no chance and that the whole of my life, down to every detail, has been mapped out in God’s divine providence and makes complete and perfect sense in God’s all-seeing eyes.”
Edith wanted to become a professor, but was refused because of her Jewish background. She became a writer and read the New Testament, Kierkegaard and Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. She was profoundly affected, however, when she picked up an autobiography of St Teresa of Avila and read the book all night.
“When I had finished the book, I said to myself: ‘This is the truth.’” Later, looking back on her life, she wrote: “My longing for truth was a single prayer.
On Jan. 1, 1922, Edith Stein was baptized. She moved to a Dominican school in Speyer and taught German and history and translated the letters and diaries of Cardinal Newman from his pre-Catholic period as well as Thomas Aquinas’ “Quaestiones Disputatae de Veritate.”
In 1932 she accepted a teaching post in the Roman Catholic division of the German Institute for Educational Studies at the University of Münster.
In 1933, she met the Prioress of the Carmelite convent in Cologne and was clothed in the habit on April 15, 1934, and took her perpetual vows on April 21,1938. Edith was now Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
But in 1938 the Nazis and their anti-Semitism would raise their heads. The Prioress of the Cologne Carmel arranged to have Sister Teresa smuggled to the Netherlands. While there she completed her study of “The Church’s Teacher of mysticism and the Father of the Carmelites, John of the Cross, on the Occasion of the 400th Anniversary of His Birth, 1542-1942.”
The Nazis occupied the Netherlands in 1940. In retaliation for being denounced by the Dutch bishops, the Nazis arrested all Dutch Jews who had become Christians. Teresa Benedicta and her sister Rosa, also a Catholic, died on Aug. 9, 1942, in a gas chamber in Auschwitz.
Pope John Paul II beatified Teresa Benedicta of the Cross in 1987, and canonized her 12 years later. She is considered one of the patrons of Europe.