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May 8, 2018

A Twenty-Something Saint from NJ? Remembering Blessed Miriam Teresa

Nicholas LaBanca

In a world that seems to be getting farther and farther away from God, faithful Christians often find it hard to find good examples to look up to. Thankfully, we as Catholics have the saints to look towards. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it:

“The Church… sustains the hope of believers by proposing the saints to them as models and intercessors” (CCC 828).

But even so, it can be difficult for modern Americans to relate to these saints, either because of age or because the times they lived in are far removed from today. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t count the saints among our friends merely because they lived in another century. These great men and women canonized and beatified by the Church provide us with great characters that we should emulate! But at the same time, we can admit that it would be great for young people today to have a saint that they can really relate to.

Thankfully, we American Catholics don’t have to look much farther than New Jersey for an American born saint. And no, I’m not talking about St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.

A Role Model for Twenty-Somethings

Unbeknownst to many Catholics in the United States, a young twenty-something New Jersey girl was beatified on American soil on October 4, 2014. Her name is Blessed Miriam Teresa Demjanovich, a nun of the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth, and she was the first person to have their beatification ceremony take place in the United States.

It’s fitting that her religious order was founded following the example of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, as she deserves to be just as well known by Americans as St. Elizabeth is. If young Americans are looking for a powerful intercessor that they can relate to on a variety of levels, then look no further than to Blessed Miriam Teresa.

The first time I heard about her was about one year after her beatification. I was at a beautiful Ruthenian (Byzantine) Catholic parish, and during the homily at Divine Liturgy that Sunday, the priest devoted his homily to Blessed Miriam. He pointed out the newly completed icon of her in the back of the church. As he talked about Blessed Miriam, who was about the same age (twenty-six) as I was at the time of her death, I was greatly inspired by her witness to the Catholic Faith. When the priest read from her writings, I immediately resolved to come to know her even more so as to explore the depths of her spiritual knowledge. These were writings that were specifically written for American audiences in the twentieth century, so I jumped at the opportunity to learn from someone that I could so easily relate to.

The Life of Blessed Miriam

She was born Teresa Demjanovich on March 26, 1901 in Bayonne, New Jersey and was the youngest of seven children. However, Teresa noted in her uncompleted autobiography that this was not the true beginning of her life:

“The real beginning of my life, the life of the spirit, occurred five days after my birth according to the flesh. I was baptized and confirmed in the Greek rite on the thirty-first of March, a Sunday, truly a day of resurrection.”

Indeed, Miriam was baptized in the Byzantine Rite of the Catholic Church. This was why during his homily, the pastor of the Ruthenian Catholic parish I visited was overjoyed when he told the congregation that “She is one of our own!” The icon that had been painted inside the church would serve as an example to the young, American Catholics of Byzantine heritage; so that they would realize that they could be like her, too.

She was authentically American in many ways. She and her siblings loved playing pranks on each other and on their friends. One of her favorite secular holidays was April Fool’s Day, and such a celebration of that day continued on into college. She was also quite into sports. Particularly, she had a fondness for that “boys’ game” known as baseball! She also played basketball and competed on the track team during her schooling. As she graduated high school in 1917, her experience in secondary school and post-secondary school wasn’t that much different from our own a century later. She took part in Spanish club, as well as drama club and glee club, and performed in and wrote many plays during both her high school and college days. She loved writing poetry, and also served as the art editor for the Elizabethan, the year book for 1923 at St. Elizabeth College. This was the same year she graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in literature. She was very familiar with college life, and in her writings, she was able to connect even the frat life to the spiritual life:

“It is a very secret club- this class of the saints, more select than the Phi Beta Kappa’s or the Delta Gamma’s or whatever else they may call themselves. The fraternity of the saints is the Alpha Omega fraternity- the first and last in point of excellence and endurance. It has its own kind of initiation and meetings. And a ‘frat pin’, too. A little different from the ordinary ‘frat pin’ which, made of gold and precious stones and a chain and a guard, lasts in its primal beauty for a while, and then the gold tarnishes and the jewels drop out or the ornament is lost altogether. No. This emblem of the saints is worn by all being initiated here on earth: this ‘frat pin,’ a cross, shaped of a sprig of thorn, becomes only in eternity an ornament revealed in its true splendor, formed of the gold of charity, encrusted with the diamond of faith, the emerald of hope, the pearl of purity, the amethyst of sorrow and mortification, the ruby of courage, the blood-stone of desire, the turquoise of watchfulness. Such is the ‘frat pin’ of the Great Founder Who was nailed to the wood of a tree…”

The Spirituality of Blessed Miriam

We can clearly see that though she lived in the world, she was quite authentically Catholic as well. She had a great devotion to St.Thérèse of Lisieux, her patron saint, just as many young Catholics currently do today.

Teresa’s foundation in the Catholic Faith started with the great witness of her parents, Alexander and Johanna. Her parents were heroically loyal to the Catholic Church, particularly when a schism arose in the family’s parish when Teresa was ten years old. The Demjanovich’s remained strong in their faith, and despite threats from those that left the Catholic Faith for Orthodoxy, Alexander Demjanovich remained firm and loyal. No doubt, Teresa picked up on this excellent example, and the way that she breathed with both “lungs” (East and West) of the Catholic Church throughout her life is a testament to this. Fr. Thomas Loya, a Ruthenian Catholic priest of the Eparchy of Parma explains further:

“She is a convergence point for unity with East and West. You can tell in her spirituality she had the influence of both. She was at home in both Churches, the Byzantine and Latin. She was a real, hard hitting person in her writing. Her spirituality was ‘no-nonsense’ in a good way. But she was a well-loved person, and a vibrant person. Her message was about being faithful to the will of God, and of dying to our own self.”

From a young age, Teresa was fortunate to have had a very deep and personal relationship with Jesus Christ. This would later lead to many spiritual consolations given to her by our Lord, and later in life, she received visions of not only our Lord and our Lady, but also of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Inspired by both her patroness and the Byzantine ascetic tradition, she often offered up little things and small mortifications throughout her day. For instance, when she was rapt in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, she would never let her feet touch the ground while kneeling, and would never rest her arms or elbows upon the pew in front of her. She offered up all these small sufferings to our Lord in union with his sufferings on the Cross.

A Sample of Her Writings

She also had a keen understanding of the malice of sin, realizing that all sin, grave or not, was most harmful:

“We all understand very well that the only sins one need confess and must confess are mortal sins… The Church has clearly defined, however… to resort to this sacrament frequently, even though venial sin be the only subject of accusation…

Here, then, we have the case of a [person aspiring to be a saint] who has been going to confession week after week, for many years- five, ten, fifteen, twenty, and as many more as necessary. God has held out to him grace upon grace, and yet… there is no proportionate increase in virtue… What is the trouble?

It is just this: he presents himself week after week before Christ, his Judge, with improper dispositions, which, through force of habit, have virtually become no dispositions at all… And the pity of the trouble is- ‘It’s only a venial sin.’ Only a venial sin! Ah, if we looked at the matter from God’s point of view rather than from our own, we should be forced to say in all truth: ‘It’s all of a venial sin!’ We have no idea of the malice of sin, and therefore we go on our way cheerfully piling up insult after insult to God, and heaping up for ourselves mountains of fuel to be consumed in the weary, slow-burning fire of purgatory. If only we had that clear knowledge of the evil of sin which the saints had…

Why are we so indifferent to the great danger and real harm of venial sin? Why? Because as long as we keep out of hell we are satisfied; that is, as long as we know we will not suffer eternally. ‘It is only a venial sin.’ Yes, I am still a friend of God. But just what kind of friend am I? I wonder if it is one He is pleased to acknowledge? Remember his words: “I will not now call you servants… but I have called you friends” (Jn 15: 15). When I deliberately commit a venial sin with the idea, ‘It’s only a venial sin,’ which is the same as saying, ‘There is no eternal punishment attached,’ am I seeking God, or am I seeking myself? Not God, surely. If I were, I would take care not to do anything that would offend Him in the least.”

A Humble Soul

What is perhaps most amazing about Teresa is the story behind the selected writings of her above. Rev. Benedict Bradley often gave talks every week to the novices at the convent where Teresa lived. He wasn’t that great of a writer, so Teresa would write the weekly catechesis. He later said of her:

“I believed that she enjoyed extraordinary lights, and I knew that she was living an exemplary life…I thought that one day she would be ranked among the saints of God…”

This fact wasn’t revealed to the convent at large until after her death; and how surprised they were when they found out that the erudite and wise words that came from the priest’s mouth were actually from the hand of a twenty-something girl from Jersey!

Fr. Loya points out:

“[Teresa] had very simple wisdom, but it was very profound! It’s that ascetical discipline, where we break our own will in order to do God’s will. She complied with the priest for humility. She willingly went along, because she died to herself and was being humble. She wasn’t saying ‘This is my intellectual property!’ It shows how her spiritual director essentially enlarged her humility… but look who’s known in the end! She is!”

After a brief illness in 1926, she was diagnosed with acute appendicitis and myocarditis, and following an appendectomy, she died on May 8, 1927 at the age of 26. Bishop Kurt Burnette, the current bishop of the Eparchy of Passaic where Teresa lived and died, sees her as a treasure not only to Byzantine Catholics, but to all American Catholics:

“Her learning of the faith through the Byzantine Rite, really affected her theological outlook. She saw contemplation as an outreach of the Trinity…

It’s very interesting that it’s up to God who gets beatified. Up until now, the great American saints were activists. They worked with the poor, did education, and were very energetic men and women. Then, God gives us a contemplative. To me, that’s very striking, that God gave us a contemplative. It shows the importance of spending personal time with God. If you’re in love with someone, it’s worthwhile to spend time with [that someone].”

In a world that finds itself idolizing sports phenoms, musical acts and other entertainers, it’s time to present Americans with someone who reflects the ultimate Good. Blessed Teresa serves that role perfectly. If the saints are to be our friends, then all American Catholics, young adults in particular, should surely start counting Teresa among their friends.

To learn more about her, or to read more from her profound writings, visit the Sisters of Charity’s website. As we walk the path to holiness, we can rely on Teresa as an excellent intercessor. Since she herself can be counted among the saints, her words now ring especially true:

“Union with God, then, is the spiritual height God calls everyone to achieve – anyone, not only religious but anyone, who chooses, who wills to seek this pearl of great price, who specializes in the traffic of eternal good, who says ‘yes’ constantly to God…The imitation of Christ in the lives of saints is always possible and compatible with every state of life.”

You May Also Like:

My Confessions: How the Saints Led Me Home

Saints in the Making

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