One of the saints depicted in the Magnificat windows of our church is Edith Stein, who is one of the more interesting women of the 20th century. Born in Germany, Edith was a thoroughly modern saint. First, she witnessed the tragedies of both World Wars. Secondly, she was a convert to the Catholic Faith. The religion of her childhood had been that of a devoutly Jewish family, but as a young teenager, Edith had become an atheist (albeit, not a belligerent one). Edith Stein was really something of a feminist pioneer. She was one of the first women admitted into university studies in Germany, where she obtained a doctorate at the University of Gottingen in 1918. At the University of Freiburg, she worked with the world-renowned professors Martin Heidegger and Edmund Husserl. Over time, and by way of her philosophical pursuits, Edith became less and less convinced in her atheism.
During the summer of 1921 at the age of twenty-nine, Edith was on vacation and picked up, by chance, an autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila (who is also depicted in our window). Reading it in a single sitting, Edith decided overnight to become Catholic. She began studying the Catechism, and soon thereafter received baptism. While prior to her conversion, her philosophical work had been largely in Phenomenology (the study of phenomena, things as they are perceived, as opposed to the study of being, the nature of things as they are), the newly converted Edith now began to study in depth the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. She also began to teach in a Catholic school. Already well-known in academic circles, Edith soon became a leading voice in the Catholic Women’s Movement in Germany. With the rise of the Nazi Party in 1933 and with its virulent anti-Semitism, a future in academia was no longer possible for Edith, and even her very life was in danger.
After her conversion, Edith had early on desired religious life. On Holy Thursday in 1933, she visited the Carmelite monastery in Cologne, and there she felt an extraordinary call to embrace the Cross of Christ. She soon entered the convent and took the religious name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Edith’s sister, Rosa, would later also be baptized and become a Carmelite. At this time, because of the persecution of the Jews, some of the Stein family felt that Edith’s entering the Carmelites was something of a betrayal, as if, by this move, she was seeking protection. But Edith had already turned down an opportunity to leave the country for South America to teach, so becoming a Carmelite in Germany left her in harm’s way. It took courage.
In time, her superiors in Cologne, fearful for their safety, ordered Edith and her sister Rosa to transfer to Echt in the Netherlands. But the Nazis wanted all of Europe, and Holland soon fell, too. In 1942, in retaliation for the Dutch bishops speaking out against Nazi racism, the Gestapo rounded up Catholics of Jewish descent and sent them to the death camps. Edith and Rosa were deported to Auschwitz and were martyred within the week in the gas chambers, August 9th, 1942.
Not much is known about that week. Some witnesses reported that Edith displayed great courage and kindness, and that her nursing skills suited her well as she attempted to give succor to those headed to death. Always she couched her experiences within that of the suffering of Christ upon His Cross. Edith Stein had been born on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, and now she was offering up herself with Christ for the sake of her own people.
Stein has been called one of the greatest philosophical minds of her age. Her work greatly influenced the highly philosophical mind of Pope Saint John Paul II, who canonized her in 1998. She was designated as one of the six patron saints of Europe, and we have rightly given her a place of honor in our Magnificat window.