by FATHER ROGER LANDRYNEWARK
Oct. 4, at the Cathedral-Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, N.J., the first beatification ever held in the United States will take place, as Sister Miriam Teresa Demjanovich, a young Sister of Charity who died in the Garden State in 1927, will be formally raised to the altars.
In the history of the Church, 18 other men and women with U.S. ties have been beatified, with 12 of them proceeding on to canonization. But with the exception of St. Damien de Veuster, who was beatified in Brussels in 1995, all of their beatification and canonization ceremonies have taken place at the Vatican.
It will be a moment of special joy for the Church in the United States when Cardinal Angelo Amato, the prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, pronounces the formula never before heard on our shores, solemnly declaring Sister Miriam Teresa beata in the presence of a 1,800-strong crowd in Newark’s stunning Gothic cathedral. The beatification ceremony will be broadcast live on EWTN at 9:30am Eastern Time.
The event is noteworthy, however, not just because it will be the first of what we hope will be many beatifications to take place in our country in the future. Every saint and blessed is proposed to the faithful as a model disciple and a proven intercessor, and Sister Miriam Teresa has much to teach us and much to suggest her as a potent and pertinent advocate before God.
‘American St. Thérèse’
She was invested in her religious habit as a novice on the day of St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s canonization (May 17, 1925), and many have called her an “American St. Thérèse.”
The two have many things in common. They came from very religious families. They were each named in baptism after St. Teresa of Avila, the great discalced Carmelite foundress. They wanted to enter a Carmelite monastery as teenagers, only to encounter various obstacles. They lost their mothers at a young age. They were playwrights and poetesses in the convent. They suffered many physical maladies and died in their mid 20s. And their great insights, written down at the behest of superiors, were unknown during their lifetimes — only to be published, to the great edification of their fellow religious and others, after their deaths.
God, however, never cookie-cuts his holy ones. Several aspects of Sister Miriam Teresa’s story are special.
First, she is a Byzantine-rite Catholic who became a sister in a Latin-rite religious congregation whose writings show a particular blend of the wisdom of Eastern and Western Christianity.
Her parents, Alexandra and Johanna, immigrated to New York from eastern Slovakia in 1884, settling in Bayonne, N.J., in 1895. Teresa was their seventh and youngest child, born in 1901 and baptized and confirmed at five days of age at St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Church in Bayonne.
Faith effused their home. Sister Miriam Teresa would recall many years later, “Only holy pictures were hung on the walls,” and “votive lights were burned before shrines and statues of the Sacred Heart, the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph.” She added that discipline flowed straight from the heart of the Gospel: “Our home was ruled by love rather than fear.” It’s unsurprising that such a home became a seedbed for vocations, both for her and her older brother, Charles, who became a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J.
For all those praying for the sanctification of the family as well as for the Church to rediscover the full familial unity between East and West, she is not only a sign but an agent of hope.
Second, she was a brilliant young woman who wanted to use her gifts for God and others. As soon as she entered the Bayonne public-school system, she couldn’t hide how smart she was, not only earning double promotions but graduating as the salutatorian of Bayonne High School at the young age of 16. She went to the College of St. Elizabeth in Convent Station, N.J., where she graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in literature — academic achievements that were rare for women at the time.
Taught Latin and English
She took a teaching position at the Academy of St. Aloysius (now Caritas Academy) in Jersey City, where she taught Latin and English. During her two years with the Sisters of Charity, she taught at St. Elizabeth’s Academy in Convent Station. In these teaching positions, she was known not only for her clarity, but for her faith, often being found kneeling on the floor of the chapel praying the Rosary or adoring the Blessed Sacrament with outstretched arms. She also joined the choir at St. Vincent de Paul Parish, the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary and other parish groups.
American students and teachers looking for assistance from above will find in her an obvious helper.
Third, she was a woman of great compassion for the sick. Despite her desire to enter religious life out of high school, not to mention her genius that led many to try to persuade her to go to college, she readily forsook both in order to first care full time for her mother, who by that point was an invalid. It was only after her mother’s death from influenza that she responded to the advice of her family members to continue her education. After her college success, she decided to take a teaching position that would allow her to care for her widowed father. Her home remained “ruled by love,” as she faithfully fulfilled the Fourth Commandment.
Those caring for sick family members will find in her both inspiration and intercession.
Fourth, she was a model of preserving and prudent discernment. She had long desired to become a cloistered Carmelite, but when she finally approached a Bronx monastery, the nuns thought that she should wait because of lingering problems with headaches, poor eyesight and other health issues.
Her brother Charles, who had recently been ordained, and other family members suggested that she should join a teaching order to serve God with the brain he had given her and formed in the truth. She ultimately made a novena before the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception in 1924, asking Our Lady’s help — and Our Lady didn’t let her down.
She discerned God was asking her to enter the order with which she was already familiar from her college days, the Sisters of Charity, founded by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American-born saint. She entered two weeks after her father’s death, in early 1925.
For all young people still trying to figure out God’s plans for them, she is a very good person to turn.
Model of Religious Life
Fifth, she is a model of the joy, beauty and fruitfulness of religious life. Despite being a postulant for just three months, a novice for two years and a professed sister for five weeks — and despite much of that time being sick — she made great contributions to her order. She taught at St. Elizabeth’s Academy. She wrote two plays, several poems, letters, meditations and biographical recollections. And, most valuably, at the request of her spiritual director, Benedictine Father Benedict Bradley, and with the permission of her mother superior, she wrote 26 conferences on religious life that Father Bradley preached to her and her fellow novices as if he had composed them.
Father Bradley acknowledged that he had received a grace to ask Sister Miriam Teresa to do something that was basically unheard of for someone so young in the religious life. “I believed that she enjoyed extraordinary lights, and I knew that she was living an exemplary life,” he stated. “I thought that, one day, she would be ranked among the saints of God, and I felt it was incumbent upon me to utilize whatever might contribute to an appreciation of her merits after her death.”
It was only after her death that he put a note on the motherhouse’s bulletin board declaring, “The conferences that I have been giving to the sisters were written by Sister Miriam Teresa.” Her brother, Msgr. Charles, published those conferences a year later under the title of Greater Perfection, which can still be obtained from the Sister Miriam Teresa League of Prayer, which promotes her cause.
All those looking for help in prayer and in the spiritual life will discover in the fruits of her contemplation a sure and accessible guide.
Sixth, long before the Second Vatican Council proclaimed the universal call to holiness, she had a clear sense that God was calling her, and all of us, to be saints.
“The imitation of Christ in the lives of the saints,” she wrote, “is always possible and compatible with every state of life. The saints did but one thing — the will of God. But they did it with all their might. We have only to do the same thing — and according to the degree of intensity with which we labor shall our sanctification progress.”
To become a saint, she added, we must lose ourselves in order to find ourselves in God. “We shall attain that height of glory in heaven that corresponds to the depths of the humility we have sounded on earth,” she declared, illustrating the point by something she learned on public-school playgrounds: “The harder you hit a ball on the ground, the higher it rebounds. The perfection of humility is the annihilation of our will, its absolute submission to the divine in every least detail.”
And that annihilation, she said, is a thing not of abnegation but of love. “The reason we have not yet become saints is because we have not understood what it means to love. We think we do, but we do not. To love means to annihilate oneself for the beloved. The self-sacrifice of a mother for her child is only a shadow of the love wherewith we should love the Beloved of our soul. To love is to conform oneself to the Beloved in the most intimate manner of which we are capable.”
All those seeking holiness, happiness and heaven will profit greatly from following her on this clear-though-challenging path.
Finally, Sister Miriam Teresa wasn’t afraid to suffer or to die, because she knew that it was only through conforming herself to Christ’s passion and death that she would taste the fullness of his life.
The last six months of her life were an agony, when she suffered from tonsillitis, appendicitis, hypertension, myocarditis and exhaustion, as well as sufferings aggravated by sisters not recognizing the seriousness of her maladies. Her weak state made doctors reluctant to operate on her appendix, doing so only as a last resort two days before her death. When it was clear her condition could prove fatal, she was allowed to make her vows, so that she could be buried as a professed sister. She took her religious names after the Blessed Virgin and the great St. Teresa of Jesus.
She died at the age of 26, on May 8, 1927, at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Elizabeth, N.J., clasping a crucifix with a relic of the True Cross.
About a year before her death, humbly, realistically and full of hope, she had written, “I have lived long enough to be absolutely sure that in this life I can be absolutely certain of only one thing, the one thing that will not fail me, the one thing that every person must face. Some day, and very soon, no matter how far distant, time for me will cease and eternity begin.”
Eternity has indeed begun for her, and, like St. Thérèse, she has been spending that eternity doing good upon earth.
The miracle for her beatification happened in 1964, when Sister Maria Augustine of the Sisters of Charity asked her third-grade classroom at St. Anastasia’s School in Teaneck, N.J., to pray to Sister Miriam for their classmate, 8-year-old Michael Mencer, who had irreversible juvenile bilateral macular degeneration that was causing him quickly to go blind. They knew Sister Miriam Teresa herself suffered with eye troubles her entire life and anticipated they would find in her a compassionate companion in prayer. After they invoked her help, and Sister Maria Augustine gave Michael a picture of Sister Miriam Teresa and a piece of her reddish-brown hair, his sight was completely restored. No trace remained that he had even had macular degeneration previously.
Michael Mencer, now 58, will be at the beatification on Oct. 4, carrying in procession, with clear-sighted vision, Sister Miriam Teresa’s relics to the sanctuary.
There, at the altar, will take place what Sister Miriam Teresa taught was the greatest means of our joining her one day in the celestial sanctuary.
“In partaking of the Blessed Sacrament,” she said, “we have a most powerful aid to sanctification. God himself comes to perfect us, if we but so will.”
She willed it. And the first American ever to be beatified on our shores will doubtlessly be interceding that we will it, too.
Father Roger Landry is pastor of St. Bernadette Parish in Fall River, Massachusetts, and is national chaplain of Catholic Voices USA.