EDITH STEIN – SAINT TERESA BENEDICTA OF THE CROSS
Martyr and Patroness of Europe
Edith was born in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland) on October 12 1891. She was the youngest of seven surviving children. Her father died before she was two and her mother took on his lumber business. The family were Jewish and Edith was always special to her mother because she was born on the Day of Atonement.
From a young age Edith had a great thirst for knowledge and she excelled in her studies, so everyone was surprised when she announced that she was leaving school at the age of 14. She went to help a married sister and while there she decided quite deliberately to stop praying. Domestic life did not really appeal to Edith and it wasn’t long before she decided to return to school. On leaving she studied psychology at Breslau University, hoping that this would reveal the meaning of life to her but she was disappointed; instead she discovered a new discipline, that of phenomenology, recently developed by Edmund Husserl, a professor at the University of Göttingen. Fascinated by this subject Edith enrolled for the summer course on Philosophy at Göttingen. Most of the philosophy students were Jews who had converted to Christianity, so this brought the issue of faith to the fore. Edith’s studies were interrupted by the First Word War and she worked as a Red Cross nurse in a field hospital in Austria. Edith then worked as Husserl’s assistant in the University of Freiburg and in 1917 she was awarded her Doctorate with the highest honours, for her dissertation on ‘The Problem of Empathy’.
The summer of 1921 marked a turning point in Edith’s life. A couple she was staying with were out one evening and, alone in the house, Edith began to read the Life of Teresa of Avila. She was completely captivated by it and read until she finished the book at dawn the next morning. Here she found the truth in the person of Christ, and she resolved to enter the Catholic Church and become a Carmelite. On New Years Day 1922 she was baptised but she had to wait to enter Carmel.
For the next ten years Edith taught at St. Magdalene’s Dominican Institute in Speyer where she developed a deep relationship with God. From there she went to the German Institute of Scientific Pedagogy in Münster, but in April 1933 she was forced to leave due to Hitler’s anti-Semitic measures. This was providential for Edith as it meant she was her free to enter Carmel which she had desired for so long.
Edith entered the Carmel of Cologne in October 1933; she was allowed to take the religious name she chose herself, Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. As the persecution of the Jews in Germany increased Edith became aware that her presence in Carmel could endanger the whole community. In order to protect her sisters, as well as for her own safety she transferred to the Carmel of Echt in Holland at the end of 1938.
As a reprisal for a letter by the Dutch Bishops condemning the treatment of Jews, the Nazis ordered the arrest and deportation of all Jewish born Catholics and Edith was arrested at her Carmel on August 2 1942, together with her sister Rosa, a Carmelite tertiary who was working as an extern helper. Edith had offered her life for her people and God accepted her offering. Witnesses from the camps of Amersfoort and Westerbork testify to Edith’s calm demeanour and the love and care she showed towards the other prisoners, especially the children.
The train which carried Edith to her death arrived in Auschwitz on 9 August. Two hundred and sixty four of the prisoners, including Edith and her sister Rosa, were taken straight to a white farm cottage where they were gassed with Zyklin B.
Pope John Paul II canonised Edith Stein on October 11 1998. Her Feast Day is August 9th.