This Day in Jewish History / Pope Announces Beatification of Jewish Convert

Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, born Edith Stein, was killed in Auschwitz in 1942.

David Green
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Edith SteinCredit: Wikimedia Commons
David Green

On May 1, 1987, Pope John Paul II announced the beatification of Edith Stein, the Jewish-born convert to Christianity who had been murdered in Auschwitz in 1942. Beatification is the penultimate stage in the process by which the Roman Catholic Church declares someone a saint, followed by canonization itself.

Edith Stein was born into an observant Jewish family on October 12, 1891 – Yom Kippur -- in Breslau, Silesia, then part of the Prussian empire, today Wroclaw, Poland. When she was two, her father, a timber merchant, died, a loss that may have contributed to her declaring herself an atheist as a teenager.

Intellectually keen, Stein attended the University of Breslau, where she also campaigned for women’s suffrage. She later pursued a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Gottingen. During World War I she served as a nurse.

Stein’s mentor at Gottingen was Edmund Husserl, the father of phenomenology; her thesis, completed in 1917, was called “On the Problem of Empathy.” When Husserl moved to the University of Freiburg, she went with him, becoming a teaching assistant there. But as a woman and a Jew, she was not able to move beyond the habitation stage.

By this point, Stein had become a serious spiritual searcher. When in 1921 she read the autobiography of the 16th-century Saint Teresa of Avila, she wrote later, “I said to myself: This is the truth.”

On January 1, 1922, Stein was baptized as a Catholic. She began teaching in a Dominican nuns’ school in Speyer, Germany. In 1933, shortly after becoming a lecturer at the Institute for Scientific Pedagogy, in Münster, she was forced to resign by order of the new Nazi government. The following year, she was invested into the Carmelite order and joined a Discalced (a Latin term meaning “barefoot”) Carmelite monastery in Cologne, remaining there until the order decided to smuggle her and her sister, Rosa, also a convert, across the border to a Carmelite institution in Echt, the Netherlands, in 1939.

In her testament of June 9, 1939, Stein, who had taken for herself the name of Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, wrote of her wish that God would take her life and death “as atonement for the unbelief of the Jewish people …”

On July 26, 1942, the Germans occupying Holland announced that in retaliation for a letter from the Dutch bishops condemning Nazi racism, they would be arresting Jewish converts who had previously been safe from deportation. Among those rounded up on August 2 were Edith and Rosa Stein. They were deported to Auschwitz, where they were gassed to death, probably on August 9, 1942.

The campaign to have Edith Stein declared a saint for her martyr’s “heroic virtue began in 1962, in Cologne, and in 1983 the cardinals of Germany and Poland petitioned Pope John Paul II to have her named a martyr.

In March 1987, Teresia Benedicta McCarthy, a two-year-old from Brockton, Massachusetts, accidentally swallowed what should have been a fatal dose of paracetamol (Tylenol). She was near death when her father, a Melkite Greek Catholic priest (who are permitted to wed), asked friends and family to pray to the spirit of Sister Teresa Benedicta, for whom his daughter had been named, for her recovery. Soon after, she did indeed undergo a “miraculous” – the word used by her Jewish pediatrician, Dr. Ronald Kleinman – recovery.

On May 1 of that year, Edith Stein was beatified, and on October 11, 1998, a year and a half after a Vatican investigator declared that the Massachusetts girl’s recovery had in fact been a miracle – and in spite of Jewish protests that Stein had been killed for being a Jew, not because she was a nun, and that canonizing her was an offense to the Jewish people in general -- Sister Teresa Benedicta was proclaimed a saint.

Edith Stein's family home, Wroclaw, Poland.Credit: Julo

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