Edith Stein was born in 1891 in Breslau, Germany, now Wroclaw, Poland. Edith’s parents raised her in the Jewish tradition, and although her father passed away when she was very young, Edith’s mother tried to keep her family united. From a young age, Edith showed signs of great intelligence and diligence in her studies, but as she got older, Edith’s faith waned and for a period of time was an agnostic.
Edith attended University both in her hometown, as well as in Gottingen where she met and studied under the philosopher Edmond Husserl. During World War I, Edith worked as nurse in a field hospital, but resumed her academic career after the war ended. She excelled so much in her studies that her professors wanted her to become a professor herself, but at that time that profession was not available to women.
There was a particular instance, however, that convinced Edith to turn away from this disbelief and eventually accept Catholicism. As she related it, Edith once saw a woman simply walk into a church. The woman was not attending any kind of formal religious service, rather she simply stopped in to “have a conversation,” as Edith put it. Edith found it remarkable that anyone would make an non-obligatory visit to a place of worship, and this incident made her see that God must exist and, therefore, be important, if people were willing to pause in their daily activities in order to converse with him. She was also deeply touched when she visited a young Catholic widow whose faith was clearly what sustained her during her difficult time. Then, in 1921 while visiting a Catholic friend, Edith read Teresa of Avilia’s autobiography.
A year later, she was baptized. Edith’s desire was to join the Carmelite order soon after her baptism, but her spiritual directors advised her against it, so she taught history and German at a school run by Dominican sisters for nearly ten years. During these years, Edith wrote and spoke extensively on the role of women. She also translated works by Cardinal Newman and Aquinas. Edith never saw her conversion as a rejection of Judaism but rather as a fulfillment of it.
In 1932, Edith was finally became a professor at the University of Munster. This was not to last, however, for in 1932 Aryan Law in Germany made it illegal for her to continue teaching because of her Jewish background. It was at this time that Edith said goodbye to her mother and siblings, and, in 1934, entered the Carmelite convent in Cologne, taking the religious name of Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, which means, Teresa, blessed of the Cross. While in Cologne, she continued her rigorous studies and completed several of her greatest works
As the Nazi regime became more and more hostile towards the Jews, however, the Carmelites in Cologne realized that it was not safe for Sister Teresa to be in Germany, and so she was smuggled to a Carmelite convent in the Netherlands, where her sister was also a nun. On August 2nd, 1942, the Gestapo came to the convent and arrested both Stein sisters. As they left the chapel, Edith was heard to say to her sister, “Come, we are going for our people.”
Edith died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz on August 9th, 1942.