St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein)
Edith Stein was born in 1891 to a Jewish family living in Breslau, Germany. From a very young age she was intellectually curious and loved to learn. She rejected her family’s Jewish piety and even God because her observation was that people acted as though they did not believe in God. She was a brilliant university student and graduated summa cum laude with a doctoral degree in philosophy. She became the assistant to one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century, Edmund Husserl, who recognized and admired her intellectual gifts.
In 1921 Edith had a conversion experience. At age 30, she began reading the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila in a friend’s library and couldn’t put it down. “This is the truth!” she exclaimed. She converted to Catholicism and was baptized on New Year’s Day, 1922.
Edith soon became well regarded as a Catholic philosopher and author. She left her university appointment as Husserl’s assistant and took a position teaching at a Dominican college for women teachers in Speyer, Germany. While there, she studied the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas and published the first German translation of his treatise The Truth. She also lectured widely to Catholic women’s groups throughout Europe.
Edith was passionate about her teaching, writing and lectures, but she yearned for a deeper relationship with God. In 1933 she entered religious formation in the Carmelite community at Cologne, Germany and made her final vows on Easter Sunday 1935, taking the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
As the persecution of Jews in Germany intensified in the late 30s, Sister Teresa Benedicta was taken out of the country. On New Year’s Eve 1938, she secretly crossed the border into the Netherlands where she was welcomed by the Carmelite community at Echt. There she would write her final book, The Science of the Cross, a study of the spirituality of St. John of the Cross.
The German Army invaded the Netherlands in 1940 and Sister Teresa’s situation would again become perilous. She and her sister Rosa, also a Catholic convert, were eventually arrested and transported by cattle train to Auschwitz, where they perished in a gas chamber on August 9, 1942.
In his homily at the time of her canonization in 1998, St. John Paul II said: “St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross says to us all: ‘Do not accept anything as the truth if it lacks love. And do not accept anything as love which lacks truth!’” The feast day of Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross is August 9.