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  • Patty Breen

A Woman for All Women

The older I get, the more I appreciate the rich heritage of female examples that I come from. My great-great grandmothers who emigrated to the United States from Greece and Ireland. My mom who taught me how to always “celebrate life”. My beloved Aunt Carolyn who was a teacher and eventually a respected prosecutor in our local community. Close girlfriends, mentors, and my spiritual director; all these are women who have influenced my life.


Today we honor a woman, who I am convinced is someone we can all relate to; no matter your stage of life, vocation, or personal faith. Her name is Edith Stein.

Born into a devout Jewish family in 1891, her father died when she was 2 years old leaving her mother to raise 11 children on her own. Edith gave up the practice of her Jewish faith as a teenager and identified as an atheist. A young woman with profound intellectual gifts, Edith studied philosophy and phenomenology. After earning her degree with highest honors in 1915, she served as a nurse in an Austrian field hospital during World War I. In 1916 she returned to academic life and earned her PHD on the phenomenon of empathy. After a radical conversion to Jesus, she was baptized Catholic in January of 1922.


While intent to join a Carmelite monastery, she instead waited 11 years out of respect for her Jewish mother. Edith lived a full, rich life as a single woman. She wrote and published many essays, taught at a Dominican school, and gave numerous public lectures on women’s issues.


The rise of the Nazis in 1933 ended her teaching career, and in 1934 she finally entered the convent taking the name of “Teresa Benedicta of the Cross” as a symbol of her acceptance of suffering. She saw it her vocation to intercede for the Jewish people whose tragic fate was becoming clearer. She was arrested by the Gestapo on August 2, 1942 from her convent and died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz on August 9.

Why is Edith for each of us? Because her life witness and example reminds us that there is no one “way” to be a woman in the world. For me, that is both freeing and empowering. Too often in religious circles, we see “one” or a “particular” way to be a woman. To be a woman does not mean we have to fit a specific mold, but rather, we freely and wholeheartedly be ourselves, fully alive. This is what Edith offers each of us, she teaches us the abundant life is being ourselves.


I relate so much to Edith. I am almost 36. I have been married, divorced, single, in serious relationships, and have no children. I love to write, run marathons, and enjoy a lively discussion on religion and politics. Her unique story reminds me God is right in the midst of my unique story.


What is the heritage of women you come from? What do you think it means to be a woman in today’s world? What might Edith have to teach you about your own life?


Edith, help us remember we are always free to be ourselves.


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