St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein)
Edith Stein, also Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, (October 12, 1891 – August 9, 1942), was born in Breslau, in the German Empire’s Prussian Province of Silesia, into an observant Jewish family. She was a very gifted child who enjoyed learning. She greatly admired her mother’s strong faith. By her teenage years, however, Edith had become an atheist.
In 1916 Stein received a doctorate of philosophy from the University of Göttingen with a dissertation under Edmund Husserl, Zum Problem der Einfühlung (On the Problem of Empathy). She then became a member of the faculty in Freiburg.
While Stein had earlier contacts with the Roman Catholicism, it was her reading of the autobiography of the mystic St. Teresa of Ávila during summer holidays in Bergzabern in 1921 that caused her conversion. Baptized on January 1, 1922, she gave up her assistantship with Husserl to teach at the Dominican nuns’ schools school in Speyer from 1923 to 1931.
In 1932 she became a lecturer at the Institute for Pedagogy at Münster, but anti-Semitic legislation passed by the Nazi government forced her to resign the post in 1933. In a letter to Pope Pius XI, she denounced the Nazi regime and asked the Pope to openly denounce the regime “to put a stop to this abuse of Christ’s name.” Stein’s letter received no answer, and it is not known for sure whether Pius XI ever even read it. However, in 1937, Pope Pius XI issued an encyclical written in German, Mit brennender Sorge (With Burning Anxiety), in which he criticized Nazism, listed breaches of the Concordat signed between Germany and the Church in 1933, and condemned antisemitism.
She entered the Discalced Carmelite Order Monastery of Cologne in October 1933, taking the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She received the habit of the Discalced Carmelites as a novice in April, 1934. Although she moved from Germany to the Netherlands to avoid Nazi persecution, in 1942 she was arrested and sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp, where she died in the gas chamber. She was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1998.
To avoid the growing Nazi threat, her order transferred Stein to the Carmelite monastery at Echt in the Netherlands. There she wrote Studie über Joannes a Cruce: Kreuzeswissenschaft (The Science of the Cross: Studies on John of the Cross). Her testament of June 6, 1939 states, “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.”
However, Stein was not safe in the Netherlands—the Dutch Bishops’ Conference had a public statement read in all the churches of the country on July 20, 1942, condemning Nazi racism. In a retaliatory response on July 26, 1942, the Reichskommissar of the Netherlands, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, ordered the arrest of all Jewish converts, who had previously been spared. Stein and her sister Rosa, also a convert, were captured and shipped to the Auschwitz concentration camp, where they are presumed to have been gassed on August 9, 1942 when Edith was 50.
Stein was beatified as a martyr on May 1, 1987, in Cologne, Germany by Pope John Paul II and then canonized by him 11 years later on October 11, 1998. Stein is one of the six patron saints of Europe, together with Saint Benedict of Nursia, Saints Cyril and Methodius, Saint Bridget of Sweden and Saint Catherine of Siena.