Blessed Miriam Teresa Demjanovich, who was raised to the honors of the altar recently (5 Oct.), at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Newark, N.J., was included in my third book, More Saints for Our Time (Waldwick, N.J.: Arena Lettres, 1983), a sequel to my very first book, 101 Saints (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1963). In More Saints, she appeared in a section entitled “Saints Without a ‘St.’” There she is grouped with such heroes of faith as Damien de Veuster, the Carmelite Nuns of France’s “Terror,” and Dr. Giuseppi Moscati of Naples – all since canonized.
Blessed Miriam was a person whom I learned about as long ago as I can remember – as familiar a name as St. Francesca Cabrini. My good father was a student (and a football player) at Seton Hall College in South Orange when Sister Miriam’s brother was also there. I was introduced to her brother, Msgr. Charles Demjanovich, when, as a young priest, I offered a funeral Mass for my aunt in St. Mary’s Church in Rutherford, N.J., where he was pastor. Somewhere in my files I have retained some bits of correspondence from him, mostly (I think) on Christmas cards. I do recall speaking to him once about his sister, whom we both knew was especially gifted in holiness by the Lord. Such conversations were, of course, ineffable.
Blessed Miriam’s parents, Alexander and Johanna, had emigrated from Slovakia, then within the political boundaries of Austria-Hungary. From New York City, the family moved to Bayonne, N.J., where her father labored as a cooper – almost a lost art today. Teresa, one of five children, was born on 26 March, 1901. Educated in public schools, she graduated from high school as valedictorian of her class in 1917. Since her family worshipped in the Greek-Ruthenian Church, Teresa was baptized, confirmed and received first Communion in that Catholic Rite. This dimension of her history was reflected in her Beatification Mass; the ceremony was conducted by bishops of both rites: those of the Latin and of a Ritual Church sui juris.
Miriam Teresa majored in literature at St. Elizabeth’s Convent Station, and graduated with honors in 1923. She began her brief teaching career at St. Aloysius Academy in Jersey City, later transferring to a Jersey City high school. Following her father’s death in 1925, she entered the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth at Convent Station – Mother Elizabeth Seton’s establishment. (For some years she felt inclined to the Carmelites, but eventually chose Convent Station – so called because so many young aspirants had departed the train at the railroad station there, Madison). On 3 May, 1927, Miriam Teresa, age 26, died there, from complications of an illness that can be treated successfully today. When the sickness became serious, she was still canonically a novice. Her brother, Msgr. Charles, was permitted to receive her formal vows in articulo mortis. She was buried on the grounds of Convent Station.
The documented key to Miriam’s heroic virtue appears in the volume Greater Perfection, a series of conferences given by a priest to the Sisters at Convent Station. These sermons were actually formulated by Miriam; the priest who gave them acknowledged their true author. Their depth and eloquence evidence a soul of extraordinary grace.
Among the Church’s earliest formal testimonials to Miriam’s holiness was a chapter by Cardinal Amleto Cicogani, Papal Delegate to the U.S. Bishops, in Sanctity in America. Therein he wrote, “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.” I included this sentence in my More Saints for Our Time.
In the 1970s, when I was completing a doctorate in central New Jersey, and commuting there three times a week, I stopped regularly in Madison to pray in the Chapel of Convent Station, only a few miles away from the university campus of the theological school at which I had enrolled. The convent site is truly a graced one; both Mrs. Seton and Miriam Teresa still inspire faith there. Often we miss the obvious, like a public school teacher in Jersey (or a hairdresser in old New York, or a Russian prince in the Alleghenies! The prince was, of course, Dmitri Gallitzen; the hairdresser was Pierre Toussaint).
The secret of holiness, as Newark Archbishop John J. Myers stressed in his opening message at the Beatification, is fidelity to God’s will.
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.