When Saul of Tarsus set out on horseback for Damascus, he did so out of religious reasons. A pious Jew, he bore letters of credence from Jerusalem entitling him to make renegade Jews (i.e., early Christians) in the Syrian capital an offer they couldn’t refuse: Abandon their ways, or else.
When God knocked him off his high horse, the Saul who fell became the Paul who got up — a convert to the Way he had earlier sought to suppress. There being no zealot like a convert, it was the Jewish Paul who led Christianity out of its cradle in Israel onto the world stage as a religion of its own. The Church celebrates the conversion of St. Paul Jan. 25.
God’s path from Israel to the Church is not just a phenomenon of the first century, however. Recently, in Poland, I had the opportunity to become acquainted with another convert, whose cause for canonization began in 2015. The Congregation for the Causes of Saints has approved the heroic virtues of Emanuela Kalb, now entitling her to be called a “venerable Servant of God.”
What do Sister Emanuela Kalb of the Canon Sisters of the Holy Spirit de Saxia and St. Paul have in common? Jewish roots.
Emanuela Kalb was born Chaje Kalb, the first of six children of Schie and Jütte Friedwald Kalb in Jarosław, a town in southeastern Poland, on Aug. 26, 1899. Pre-World War II Poland was home to the largest Jewish diaspora in the world. In 1939, 3.5 million Jews lived in Poland; when the war ended in 1945, only about 2.5% of that population had survived.
When Chaje Kalb was born, there was not even a Poland. The country had been carved up by Russia, Prussia and Austria. Chaje and her family were subjects of the Austrian emperor. Her father was listed as a “commercial assistant,” which meant he worked when stores or businesses might need him — he was not among the wealthiest of the community. The precarious economic situation of his family is probably why Schie immigrated to the United States just before World War I; the outbreak of the war was probably why his family never heard from him again.
The burden of caring for the family fell upon Jütte, who died in 1916, in the middle of the war. Chaje, as the eldest, tried to keep at least the youngest of her family together. Eventually, after the war, she managed to reunite and raise the two youngest.
Chaje grew up in an observant Jewish home. She recalled her father as an example of diligence in daily prayer and her mother as one who gathered the children every evening for reading from the Bible. As Chaje learned about the great figures of ancient Israel, she also imbibed the Messianic expectations that animated her family.
Chaje’s parents did not just pray and read the Bible: They put their faith into action. The future nun recalls her father as an example of social justice, always adding some poor or solitary Jew to his Sabbath table.
But the Kalb’s modest economic situation also put young Chaje in touch with Gentiles, Polish Catholics. Chaje attended public school and so certainly encountered young Catholic girls her age.
The turning point in Chaje’s life came at age 17, when she spent half a year in the hospital, after an eruption of malignant lichen, a skin disease. She came under the care of nuns, who shared their faith with her. Like St. Ignatius of Loyola, the enforced rest gave Chaje the time to think about her life and to bring to bear what she heard from the sisters with her own religious formation. The seed came to flower Jan. 18, 1919, when she was baptized in Przemyśl Cathedral, taking the name “Mary Magdalene.” Asked later why she converted, her answer was simple: “I came to know the Truth and went after it.”
Her path would not be easy. Her conversion led to her exclusion from the Jewish community, and there were still two young siblings to raise. Chaje managed to find them places in Catholic orphanages and programs for the poor, where they learned a trade — and themselves became Catholics.
Her familial obligations met, Chaje continued her path to discover God’s will for her life. She felt a call to the religious life and from 1919 to 25 spent time with the Michaelites, an order that was then forming in Poland but still lacked canonical status. Leaving them, she felt a call “to the convent” and, walking down a street in Kraków, came upon a place that looked like one. It was the Canon Sisters of the Holy Spirit de Saxia. She knocked at the door — and stayed.
She received the habit of a novice in 1928 and made her perpetual profession of vows in 1933, receiving the religious name “Emanuela,” quite fitting for a young Jewish convert to Christianity.
During her years as a nun, Emanuela Kalb fulfilled various functions in her order: mistress of novices, administrator and teacher. Her fellow sisters remember her as a person who was always happy, as one who knew how to buck up people when they needed it. She survived the war on false papers; the sisters changed her biography to identify her family background as that of a nun of the order who had recently died.
As the years went by, Sister Emanuela eventually lost her hearing, needing people to speak into a long tube so she could sometimes know what they were saying. She bore her cross as an example to all, never missing religious conferences or retreat masters, even if she had to make out what was said by lipreading.
Her earthly life came to an end Jan. 18, 1986, 67 years to the day after she was baptized. She was buried in Kraków.
Her writings provide an insight into her spiritual depth. Some reflections:
“The paths of grace are peaceful, frequently hidden. ... Grace is required for every good deed, and grace has to be asked for.”
“Jesus loves me with the love with which he loves the Father. The Father loves me with the love with which he loves the Son in the Holy Spirit. The love of the Eternal Trinity is an eternal, infinite, indivisible love. One simple love encompasses all.”
“I need no signs; I seek no guarantees. For me, it suffices that God is he who is.”
“Only your love could have thought up the Eucharist. Even God could not do more for man beyond that limit.”
“He alone is with me everywhere. I live with God. I have no idea how to express this: God — me.”
“You must become a saint! ... If you do not become a saint, you render the whole plan that I have made for you in vain.”
John M. Grondelski writes from Falls Church, Virginia.
For more information on Sister Emanuela Kalb, see http://kanoniczki.pl/home/siostra-emanuela-kalb/125-i-have-found-the-trouth-and-i-have-followed-it