A Hidden Life for God
5/1/2015Msgr. David Q. Liptak
Imagine a young secondary school teacher from New Jersey being raised by the Church to the honors of the altar with the title Blessed. Imagine a woman, born to immigrants from Slovakia at the turn of the 20th century, who died almost unnoticed at the age of 26. Imagine a woman whose religious affiliation bridged both the Latin and Ruthenian-Byzantine rites of the Catholic Church. It all seems so unlikely, yet I, for one, had long awaited this woman’s beatification, which took place last October. Her name is Sister Miriam Teresa Demjanovich.
My good father, a native of northern New Jersey, was a student at Seton Hall College (now University) when Sister Miriam Teresa’s brother, Charles, was also there. Hence I began learning about her from my earliest days. It was my father who introduced me to Msgr. Charles Demjanovich, then-pastor at St. Mary’s Church in Rutherford, N.J., when we drove down for my aunt’s funeral Mass in the mid-1970s. I still vividly recall the experience being introduced to the brother of a woman whose cause for canonization had already been opened. Our conversation before and after Mass was ineffable, and we exchanged Christmas greetings for several years afterward. Since that time, my interest in Sister Miriam Teresa never waned.
In one of my earliest books, More Saints for Our Time, Sister Miriam Teresa has a place in the section titled “Saints Without a St.” She is there alongside many who have since been recognized as saints by the Church, such as Dr. Giuseppe Moscati and Father Damien de Veuster. At the time, I included a prayer for Sister Miriam Teresa’s cause composed by Cardinal Amleto Cicognani, who served as apostolic delegate to the United States under three popes: “Please God, this girl who was born and lived and died in the twentieth century, within the shadows of the world’s greatest metropolis, who tried to live only for God, in God, and with God, may some day be raised to the altars.”
Sister Miriam Teresa’s long-awaited beatification Mass was celebrated Oct. 4, 2014, at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark. Joined by bishops from New Jersey, New York and Washington, D.C., Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints, read the Church’s beatification decree before an overflow crowd of more than 2,000 people.
Reading from a letter sent by Pope Francis, the cardinal declared the Sister Miriam Teresa “blessed” by virtue of her “ardent adoration of the Most Holy Trinity” and “strenuous witness [that] is evidence of her evangelical love.”
In his homily, Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli of Paterson, N.J., Blessed Miriam Teresa’s home diocese, said that the graces that God gave to Sister Miriam Teresa are not reserved for a select few, but are available to all people.
“She herself once wrote, ‘Union with God is the spiritual height God calls everyone to achieve anyone, not only religious but anyone who says “yes” constantly to God,’” Bishop Serratelli said.
“By God’s grace, she knew and understood, she spoke and lived, the universal call to holiness, later to be formally taught by the Second Vatican Council.”
Also present at the beatification Mass was Michael Mercer, 58, who miraculously recovered his vision at age 8 through the intercession of Sister Miriam Teresa. He carried a relic of Blessed Miriam Teresa to a place of honor during the ceremony.
Born Teresa Demjanovich, the youngest of seven children, in Bayonne, N.J., March 26, 1901, Blessed Miriam Teresa could never have anticipated her own beatification. The family had originally settled in New York City after emigrating from northeastern Slovakia, and the children were baptized and confirmed in the Ruthenian-Byzantine Catholic Church.
Teresa excelled at her studies and enjoyed music, poetry, theater and dance, while also nurturing a life of prayer. After caring for her ill mother who died of influenza in 1919, Teresa followed the advice of her family and enrolled in the College of Saint Elizabeth at Convent Station, founded in the tradition of the first native-born U.S. citizen-saint, Elizabeth Ann Seton. Majoring in English literature, she graduated summa cum laude in 1923 and began teaching English and Latin at the Academy of St. Aloysius in Jersey City. Having already discerned a religious vocation, Teresa delayed her entrance to religious life due to her father’s brief illness and subsequent death.
She entered the novitiate of the Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth on Feb. 11, 1925 the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. She soon received her novice’s habit and took the name Sister Miriam Teresa in honor of the Blessed Mother and St. Teresa of Ávila. She also had a deep devotion to St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who was canonized that same day. As a postulant and novice, Sister Miriam Teresa taught at the Academy of Saint Elizabeth in Convent Station. Over the next two years, she wrote prolifically: short plays, poems, meditations, letters and even part of her autobiography.
Early in 1927, Sister Miriam Teresa’s health failed and she was hospitalized several times. In April, with her brother Msgr. Charles by her side, she received permission to take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience at St. Elizabeth Hospital. There, after complications following a burst appendix, Sister Miriam Teresa died on May 8. She was buried at Convent Station.
Following Sister Miriam Teresa’s death, the convent’s bulletin board displayed a note signed by Benedictine Father Benedict Bradley, her spiritual director and confessor. Therein he humbly acknowledged that the conferences he had been giving to the novices were actually composed by Sister Miriam Teresa brilliant, deeply theological talks, clearly reflecting the beauty of a special soul.
“I believed that she enjoyed extraordinary lights, and I knew that she was living an exemplary life,” Father Bradley later said. “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 death.”
These 26 conferences were collected in a book titled Greater Perfection, edited by Msgr. Charles Demjanovich. The book also included Sister Miriam Teresa’s own “Litany of Love” and a prayer to the “Most Holy and Blessed Trinity” both components of her personal devotions.
Though the meditations in Greater Perfection are principally addressed to those in religious life, they are readily adaptable to anyone who is on a quest for spiritual maturity. Her words were often challenging:
“If, then, you wish to acquire a strong, devoted, pure love for Jesus Christ and this is essential, if you wish to follow in his footsteps, by putting on the new man who ‘is created in justice and holiness of truth’ (Eph 4:24) you must first be resolved to do his will in all things, even the most trivial, and unseen by men.”
She added, “Strive to act always from a motive of pure love; that is, do all just to please him alone. This is not an easy matter, for though one may very easily say this with his lips, God judges the heart. Do you know when you do all from pure love of God? When in all things, those you like and especially those you dislike, you attend to the least details with the greatest possible care.”
Essentially, the meaning of this young woman’s hidden, glorious and brief life is that real joy can be found simply in conforming oneself to what God asks of us day by day. It is the same lesson taught by Dante in the Divine Comedy: When Dante eventually saw the beatific vision, he exclaimed, “And in your will is our peace!”
Whenever I reflect upon the life of Sister Miriam Teresa, I recall her yearning to go unnoticed in our bustling, noisy and crisis-weary world. Though she sought to be alone with Christ every moment of the years allotted her, she was acutely aware that serving the Lord in her neighbor had to be her mission also, whether it involved dusting corridors, peacemaking in her community or teaching.
We live for the Lord, despite the trials or obstacles of life. “Do what you are doing,” an ageless norm stressed in my seminary days, which means just this: Live according to God’s will every day. Such is the ultimate goal of a saint, and it is a goal that Blessed Miriam Teresa never forgot.
Her humble and radiant witness teaches us that if only we were to take advantage of the countless “ordinary duties” that God asks of us daily, we could all become saints.
In her own words: “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.”
MSGR. DAVID Q. LIPTAK is executive editor of The Catholic Transcript, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Hartford, where he has worked for more than 60 years. He is a member of Cathedral of St. Joseph Council 11405 in Hartford, Conn.