“I was saying my Rosary here at the window seat when suddenly the grounds outside appeared bathed in a dazzling light and the Blessed Mother was clearly seen by me,” said Sister Miriam Teresa to her fellow students at College of St. Elizabeth at Convent Station in New Jersey, prior to her graduation in 1923. She was describing one of those moments many people believed she showed her holiness. Sister Teresa later said the “beauty and sweetness” of the moment remained in her mind continually.
In May, Pope Benedict XVI moved the Bayonne native one step closer to sainthood by elevating her title from “Servant of God” to “Venerable.”
“I am delighted about the announcement that the cause of Sister Miriam Teresa is moving forward, and that the Holy Father has authorized bestowal of the title ‘Venerable’ upon her,” said Archbishop John Myers in a recent statement. “Since becoming Archbishop of Newark, I have heard many stories about her goodness and holiness and her love of both the Lord and His people. I join in thanking the good Lord and all in the church who have helped bring her cause to this point, and am grateful that I have played a part in promoting the cause for this pious member of the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth.”
Since 1945, when her followers established a Sister Miriam Teresa League in New Jersey to help have her made a saint, the Roman Catholic Church has examined Sister Teresa’s life studying “her virtues, writings and reputation for holiness.”
Born and raised in Bayonne
Sister Teresa, whose birth name was Teresa Demjanovich, was born in Bayonne on March 26, 1901, the youngest of seven children.
Although she did not make up her mind about becoming a Sister of Charity until she was in college, she apparently dedicated herself to God at a very early age.
Born in a house on East 22nd Street in Bayonne, she was the daughter of a shoemaker and attended nearby St. John’s Byzantine Church, following Eastern Orthodox rites. Baptized five days after her birth, Teresa later wrote that the moment was the start of her “real life.”
She once told her spiritual director that as a child on the hook, she received from God the grace to understand the meaning of life, which was “to do His will.”
She grew up in what is called the Hook Section of Bayonne in one of a few houses that stood amidst the oil refineries. Her father eventually took up work at Tide Water Oil, one of the local companies.
Her father had a shoemaker’s shop on the first floor of the building in what had previously been a dry goods store. The family lived in the rest of the building with their seven children, five of whom survived into adulthood.
She always viewed her life as a series of internal transitions or states of grace. In her autobiography, she remembered sitting in the window of her father’s store on Jan. 19, 1904, when a fire gutted St. John’s, and recalled how she calmly watched the firefighters vividly outlined against the background of flames. She also recalled neighbors bringing the vestments from the church into the store for safe keeping. She was apparently very conscious at that age, forming opinions of the women she saw and their reactions.
She attended No. 5 School, where her sister Mary taught, and then graduated from Lincoln School at age of eleven, by which time her father had closed his shop to work for Tide Water Oil.
She received her high school diploma in January of 1917 from the Bayonne High School, where was graduated as salutatorian.
She did not go off to college immediately, but remained home to take care of her mother, a victim of the influenza epidemic. At this time she wished very much to become a Carmelite nun, but the lingering illness of her mother kept her at home as nurse and housekeeper.
Her sister Mary said she was “always cheerful in her work.”
After her mother’s death in November 1918, Sister Teresa helped comfort her family through the loss, and the following September she began attending the College of Saint Elizabeth, from which she graduated summa cum laude in 1923. She returned to Bayonne afterward.
Sister Teresa taught English and Latin for a while at Saint Aloysius School with the Sisters of Charity in Jersey City, but apparently found teaching difficult, and claimed grading papers gave her eye strain. She debated whether or not to join the Carmelite Order of Sisters, but eventually joined the Sisters of Charity, which is devoted to the teaching of children. But she waited to enter until after her father’s death in early 1925.
She wrote that when she entered the convent of Feb. 11, 1925, the Beast of Our Lady of Lourdes, “nothing could disturb my calm.”
In her new life, God gave her grace, she said.
When she took on the habit on May 18, 1925, she adopted the names Miriam, for the Blessed Mother, and Teresa, for the Saint of Avila.
Sister Teresa’s spiritual director in religion, Father Benedict Bradley, was immediately aware of her gifts and directed some of her efforts toward writing. Sister Teresa authored a series of lectures which, with her consent, he presented as his own in talks to other nuns.
Sister Teresa took her final vows just before her death on May 8, 1927.
After Sister Teresa’s death in 1927, Father Bradley disclosed her as the author and a volume of her works called Greater Perfection was published posthumously. This was later translated into a number of languages, including Chinese.
Some fellow nuns said she became a model for those wishing to leave a life of contemplation.
Reports began to surface from around the world attributing a variety of miraculous “favors and cures” done at her intercession.
In 1945, Rome authorized the local bishop to begin investigations as to whether or not Sister Teresa met the standards for sainthood.
Becoming a saint is a rigorous process that involves four steps. The church first appoints someone to scrutinize claims of miracles with the intent to disprove them. During the second stage, a person’s heroic virtues are recognized and the Pope declares the individual a “Servant of God.” This happened in 1955, later entitling Sister Teresa to be called “Venerable.”
Next the Vatican closely examines a candidate’s writings. Finally, to become as saint, a person must have miracles associated with him or her.
This is usually an investigation conducted locally by the bishop from the area in which the proposed saint lived.
In 2003, a tribunal met in Convent Station concerning alleged miracles at the intercession of Sister Teresa that took places in the 1960s. She was credited with helping to heal people, particularly with restoring the vision of a boy who was considered legally blind. The matter was investigated by a Newark Archdiocesan Tribunal, which concurred in 2005.
The Vatican standard for miracles is extremely high: a board of doctors, notoriously exacting, must conclude that no reasonable medical explanation exists for a healing. If there are living witnesses, they are brought to testify.
The second process, known as the Apostolic process, is instituted by the Pope to more closely scrutinize the person’s past and to determine if he or she should be elevated to sainthood.
If the Pope grants Sister Teresa the newly elevated “Blessed” status, he will do so at a mass held in Rome, at which time he will also set a feast date to be celebrated related to her life.
Bayonne has dedicated a park in her name located on East 23rd Street about two blocks from where she grew up.
Rev Msgr. Ronald J. Marczewski, pastor of nearby Mount Carmel Church, said along with the recent naming of a street after Pope John Paul II, this part of the city has become a very venerable place.
“It is wonderful to have two people such as these so close to sainthood,” he said, noting that Pope John Paul II was named “Blessed” earlier this year as well.