In the Footsteps of Saint Edith Stein

by Beverly Stevens

She was an intellectual German Jew and a Carmelite nun.  She was murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz. Today, she is a Catholic saint. But who was this astounding woman, really?  Saint Edith Stein!

photo(11)The story of Edith Stein begins on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, 1891 when she was born the youngest of eleven children of a Jewish timber merchant in Breslau, Germany. By the time she was two her father died, leaving her devout, hard-working mother to struggle alone. The prevailing secularism in German intellectual culture in the early 20th Century, however, meant that the young Edith and her siblings would lose their mother’s faith in God.

At the age of 14 “I consciously decided, of my own volition, to give up praying,” Edith wrote, years later. Later, as a brilliant university student and a radical suffragette with a keen interest in philosophy, Edith studied at Gottingen University under the renowned Professor Edmund Husserl.  Husserl denied Kant’s assertion that all reality is subjective; his view had the unintended effect of leading many of his pupils to Christianity.

Eyewitness to Death

Edith later entered to a nursing program, though, and soon found herself in an Austrian field hospital in the midst of the typhus epidemic of the First World War. She assisted in an operating theater and witnessed young people dying. It was too much for her.

Even before the war ended, she fled the battlefield, following Husserl to the University at Freiburg, and in 1917 gaining her doctorate summa cum laude on “The Problem of Empathy.” In 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.”

 At the Frankfurt Cathedral one day, Edith was astounded to see a simple woman with a shopping basket kneel for a brief prayer. “This was something totally new to me,” she wrote. “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 was going to have an intimate conversation. It was something I never forgot.”


“I saw someone coming straight from the busy marketplace into this empty church, as if she was going to have an intimate conversation. It was something I never forgot.”

Converting to Catholicism

The next step to her conversion came when Edith visited her friend Mrs. Reinach, a young, grieving war widow. “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.”

Though she had a doctorate, Edith was not permitted to teach at the university level because she was a woman. Years later, when women were professors, she was denied because she was a Jew. With no employment options, she returned to home to Breslau, where in the next few months she read the New Testament, Kierkegaard and Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. In the summer of 1921, Edith happened upon the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. She stayed up all night reading.

“When I had finished the book, I said to myself: This is the truth,” she wrote. On January 1, 1922, at age 31, Edith Stein was baptized.  She spent a great deal of time at remote Beuron Abbey, studying under the tutelage of the Benedictine Abbot there. Later, she was confirmed by the Bishop of Speyer in his private chapel and for almost ten years afterwards she taught German and history at the Dominican Sisters’ college in Speyer. In 1932, she lectured under Catholic auspices at the University of Munster.  

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HIGH ALTAR, BEURON ABBEY where in the early 1920s Edith Stein spent a great deal of time studying Catholicism under the Benedictine Abbot.

Though she wanted to join a Carmelite convent, the Bishop dissuaded her. “During the time immediately before and quite some time after my conversion I … thought that leading a religious life meant giving up all earthly things and having one’s mind fixed on divine things only. Gradually, however, I learned that other things are expected of us in this world… I even believe that the deeper someone is drawn to God, the more he has to `get beyond himself’ in this sense, that is, go into the world and carry divine life into it.”

Stein was a prolific translator and writer. She translated the letters and diaries of Cardinal Newman from his pre-Catholic period as well as the Quaestiones Disputatae de Veritate of St Thomas Aquinas.  She wrote Potency and Act, a study of the central concepts developed by Aquinas.

In 1933, Hitler came to power. The Nazis made it impossible for Edith to continue teaching. “I had heard of severe measures against Jews before. But now it dawned on me that God had laid his hand heavily on His people, and that the destiny of these people would also be mine,” she wrote. “If I can’t go on here, then there are no longer any opportunities for me in Germany. I had become a stranger in the world.”

EARLY 20TH CENTURY PIETA in Frankfurt Cathedral.

Entering Carmel

She resolved to enter the Carmelite Convent in Cologne. In 1938 Edith Stein, now known as Sister Teresa, Blessed of the Cross wrote: “I understood the cross as the destiny of God’s people, which was beginning to be apparent at the time (1933). I felt that those who understood the Cross of Christ should take it upon themselves on everybody’s behalf. Of course, I know better now what it means to be wedded to the Lord in the sign of the cross. However, one can never comprehend it, because it is a mystery.”

 “Those who join the Carmelite Order are not lost to their near and dear ones, but have been won for them, because it is our vocation to intercede to God for everyone,” she wrote on October 31, 1938. “I keep thinking of Queen Esther who was taken away from her people precisely because God wanted her to plead with the king on behalf of her nation. I am a very poor and powerless little Esther, but the King who has chosen me is infinitely great and merciful. This is great comfort.”

Ten days later, the violent persecution of German Jews went into overdrive, and Edith’s Prioress worked desperately to smuggle her across the border to a Carmelite Convent in Echt, in the Netherlands. There, Edith wrote “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.”

Arrested by the Gestapo

Edith Stein was arrested by the Gestapo on August 2, 1942, while in the chapel with the sisters. She was given five minutes to leave, together with her sister Rosa, another nun. Her last words there were addressed to Rosa: “Come, we are going for our people.”

Their arrest – along with other Jewish Christians — was a Nazi act of retaliation against a letter of protest by the Dutch Catholic Bishops on the pogroms and deportations of Jews. On August 7, 1942,  early in the morning, 987 Jews were deported to Auschwitz. Records indicate that it was probably on August 9 that Edith and Rosa were gassed to death.

The Miracle for Her Canonization

The miracle which was the basis for her canonization was the cure of Teresa Benedicta McCarthy, a little girl who had swallowed a large amount of acetaminophen which causes hepatic necrosis. Her father, Reverend Emmanuel Charles Mc Carthy, a priest of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church and her entire family prayed for Stein’s intercession. Shortly thereafter the nurses in the intensive care unit saw her sit up completely healthy. Dr. Ronald Kleinman, a pediatric specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital who treated Teresa Benedicta, testified about her recovery to Church tribunals, stating “I was willing to say that it was miraculous.”

Saint Edith Stein was beatified in Cologne in 1987 and canonized in 1998. Blessed Pope John Paul II said that the Church “bowed down before a daughter of Israel who, as a Catholic during Nazi persecution, remained faithful to the crucified Lord Jesus Christ and, as a Jew, to her people in loving faithfulness.”

MEMORIAL PLAQUE TO EDITH STEIN IN COLOGNE, GERMANY on the occasion of her beatification there.



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