St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) was born in Breslau, Germany, in 1891, the youngest of 11 children. Though her parents were devout Jews, Stein lost her faith in God during her teens.
After discovering the work of the renowned philosopher Edmund Husserl, she went to the University of Gottingen to study under him. She became his graduate assistant, teaching introductory courses to his seminar students and editing his manuscripts. Her study of philosophy also led her to a serious consideration of Christianity.
During the summer of 1921, she read the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. When she finished, she said to herself, “This is the truth.”
Stein was baptized on Jan. 1, 1922. Under the guidance of a spiritual director, she put off a decision for religious life and devoted herself to academic work, the apostolate and prayer. She became a teacher at the Educational Institute of Munster and a popular speaker at many conferences around Europe.
When the Nazi party’s new anti-Semitic laws forced her to give up her teaching position, she saw it as the moment God had provided to enter Carmel, which she did, taking the name Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. In 1938, as persecution of the Jews intensified, Stein wrote in a letter, “I firmly believe that the Lord has accepted my life as an offering for all.” On the night of Dec. 31 that year, she escaped to a Carmelite monastery in Echt, Holland.
In August 1942, Stein was arrested there by two Nazi officers. She was loaded with almost a thousand other prisoners into railcars and taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Witnesses later spoke of her remarkable calm amid the horror of the camp and remembered her comforting the children of mothers who were too terrified to pay attention to them. Stein died in the camp’s gas chambers, probably on Aug. 9.
She was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1987 and canonized by him in 1998. A year later, he named her a co-patron of Europe, alongside St. Brigid of Sweden and St. Catherine of Siena.