Richard Jerome
May 19, 1997 12:00 PM

IN THE END, IT TOOK THE CHILD OF A priest to make a saint of Edith Stein—who will soon be the only Jewish-born person to be so honored in modern times. The process was set in motion in March 1987, when 2-year-old Teresia Benedicta McCarthy of Brockton, Mass., lay comatose in a Boston hospital, dying of liver failure hours after swallowing a potentially lethal dose of Tylenol. That was when Benedicta’s father, Rev. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy, a Roman Catholic priest in the Eastern rite (in some cases the church ordains married men), frantically called friends and relatives, asking them to pray to Stein.

A prominent German-Jewish intellectual who converted to Catholicism in 1922, at 30, and joined the Carmelite order as Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Stein was gassed by the Nazis at Auschwitz 20 years later. Father McCarthy and his wife had named the youngest of their 13 children, born 42 years to the day after Stein died, in her memory. At first, as they prayed, the little girl slipped closer to death. But four days after she swallowed the pills, a mystified doctor wrote on her chart, “This child has made a remarkable recovery.” Four days later she went home. “She was carrying a balloon,” says her father. “She was healed.”

On April 8, after a decade of study, debate and testimony by medical experts, the Vatican declared that the recovery of Benedicta McCarthy, now 12, was a miracle attributable to Edith Stein’s intercession. The ruling is the final step before Pope John Paul II (at a time not yet known) canonizes Stein, whom he proclaimed “beatified” 10 years ago, calling her “a daughter of Israel who remained faithful, as a Jew, to the Jewish people and, as a Catholic, to our crucified Lord Jesus Christ.”

His assessment underscores a minor controversy. Though Stein is being sainted as a Christian martyr—the church asserts that Stein, then a nun in Holland, was killed in retaliation for criticism of the Nazis by Dutch bishops—many Jews disagree. “She had been registered [as a Jew], she had been told to wear the yellow star,” says James Baaden, 38, an American rabbinical student now writing a biography of Stein. “The Nazis proceeded with her exactly as they intended to with all Jews.”

The future saint was born on Yom Kippur—Oct. 12, 1891—the youngest of seven children, in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland). Her father, Siegfried Stein, who ran a lumber yard, died in 1893, and her mother, Auguste, took over the business. “Pale and anemic,” as Stein described herself in an unfinished memoir, young Edith was bookish and compassionate. “One could entrust to her all one’s troubles and secrets,” wrote her sister Erna, a physician, after her death. Stein studied history and philosophy at three German universities—with time out as a Red Cross volunteer during World War I—and became one of the first women in Germany to receive a Ph.D. In 1922, Stein, an agnostic, converted to Catholicism, purportedly after reading a biography of the 16th-century Carmelite mystic St. Teresa of Avila. She never explained her choice, but Erna’s daughter Susanne Batzdorff, 75, says, “Her conversion followed hard upon some romantic disappointments.” In any event, Stein’s decision was not well-received at home. “My grandmother [Stein’s mother] was devastated,” says Batzdorff.

Stein taught at a Catholic school until 1933, when the Nazis banned her, and all others of Jewish parentage, from holding public posts. It was then that she joined the Carmelite order in Cologne. Batzdorff, then 12, asked her aunt why she was drifting further from Judaism while German Jews were being persecuted. “She said, ‘Don’t think I’m trying to run away from the fate of the Jewish people.’ I thought about it much, much later, because the fate of the Jewish people did catch up with her in the end.” (Thousands of Catholic priests and nuns also died in the Holocaust.)

Stein entered Cologne’s Mary of Peace cloister at 42, an advanced age for a novice. “She was loved very much,” recalls Sister Margareta, 87, the only living member of the order to have known her. “She never pushed herself on you, but she would teach you if you asked.” She lived in a tiny room and spent her days writing scholarly essays. But in 1938, after the pogrom called Kristallnacht, the order transferred her to Echt, Holland. Stein’s sister Rosa sought sanctuary with her, and they lived safely until, on Aug. 2, 1942, the Gestapo arrived at the convent. Edith and Rosa, alone, were deported to the Auschwitz death camp in Poland. When the Nazis came for her, Stein left the only insight into her state of mind. “Come,” she told Rosa. “Let us go for our people.” A week later they were led to the gas chamber. “To us, it’s clear she was killed because she was of Jewish origin,” says Batzdorff. Still, with her aunt on the cusp of canonization, she can’t suppress a certain wonder: “As I always say, it’s not every Jewish family that has a saint in their midst.”

RICHARD JEROME

NINA A. BIDDLE in London, JEANNE GORDON in Santa Rosa, Calif., MARIA EFTIMIADES in New York City, ROY KAMMERER in Cologne and DANIELA SIMPSON in Rome

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