Saint of Auschwitz
Also known as: Saint Maximilian Maria Kolbe, Martyr of Charity
Maximilian Kolbe was born on 7 January 1894 in Zdunska-Wola, near Lodz, in Poland. His name wasn't always Maximilian. He was born the second son of Juul Kolbe and Maria Dubrowska and was given the baptismal name of Raymond. About the time of his First Holy Communion, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to him. In 1906, about the time of his First Holy Communion, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to him; he was about 12 years of age. During the time the Blessed Virgin was appearing to him, she offered him the graces of virginity or martyrdom and asked him which he wanted. Filled with zeal, he begged for both, and was filled thereafter with the most ardent desire to love and serve the Blessed Virgin Mary. In 1907, Raymond and his elder brother entered a junior Franciscan seminary in Lwow. He was recieved as a novice in September 1910 and with the habit he took the new name of Maximilian. From 1912 to 1915, he was in Rome studying philosophy at the Gregorian College, and from 1915 to 1919 theology at the Collegio Serafico.
On April 28, 1918, Maximilian was
ordained a priest. The next day, he celebrated his first Mass in Rome, in the
beautiful Basilica of S. Andrea delle Fratte at the "Altar of the Miracle," where the Blessed Virgin Mary had appeared to the Jew, Ratisbonne, who
was instantly converted. At that altar of the Madonna, Maximilian stood as a
living model of Mary's priest. Let us ponder the two of them - the Madonna and
Saint Maximilian - Jesus' Mother, and the priest identified with the person of
Christ the Priest. How lovingly must the Madonna have looked upon that first
celebration and assisted at it! And how fondly must Maximilian have regarded her
and glorified her, the Queen, the Mediatrix, the Immaculate Mother of his
In January 1917, while
at the Conventual Franciscan Friars' seminary in Rome, young Maximilian Kolbe
heard the Miraculous Medal conversion story of Alphonse Ratisbonne. This
wonderful account inspired him to recognize the powerful role that God had given
Mary in the work of leading people to conversion and growth in holiness.
He understood that the Miraculous Medal symbolized her active presence in the
Church as Mediatrix of all the graces that flow from the Heart of Christ.
For the next nine months, Maximilian meditated upon the Miraculous Medal, the
apparition of Our Lady to St Catherine Laboure' and the marvel of Ratisbonne's
Father Maximilian returned to Poland in 1919 and began spreading his Militia of the Immaculata movement of Marian consecration, which he founded on October 16, 1917, in the seminary of the Conventual Franciscan Friars in Rome, via San Teodoro 42. The “Militia of the Immaculata” is a worldwide evangelization movement. In 1922, the Movement was canonically established as a Pious Union of the Faithful and in 1926, Pope Pius XI elevated it to the status of a Primary Union. In 1927, he established an evangelization center near Warsaw called Niepokalanow, the "City of the Immaculata" (Marytown). Not content with his work in Poland, Maximilian and four brothers left for Japan in 1930. Within a month of their arrival, penniless and knowing no Japanese, Maximilian was printing a Japanese version of the Knight; the magazine, Seibo no Kishi grew to a circulation of 65,000 by 1936. In 1931, he founded a monastery in Nagasaki, Japan comparable to Niepokalanow. It survived the war, including the nuclear bombing, and serves today as a center of Franciscan work in Japan. In mid-1932, he left Japan for Malabar, India, where he founded a third Niepokalanow house. However, due to a lack of manpower, it did not survive. Poor health forced him to curtail his missionary work and return to Poland in 1936. On December 8, 1938, the monastery started its own radio station. By 1939, the monastery housed a religious community of nearly 800 men, the largest in the world in its day, and was completely self-sufficient including medical facilities and a fire brigade staffed by the religious brothers.
When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, Saint Maximilian was ordered to cease
his publishing. Niepokalanow then turned its attention to treating the war
injured. Before long, the Gestapo arrested Father Kolbe and imprisoned him at
Amtitz. He was released, but only to be arrested again on February 17, 1941.
This time he was sent to the dreaded Auschwitz, and there under an inhuman
monster of a commandant named Fritz, he became known as Prisoner Number 16670,
just one more of the thousands of human statistics living in the terror of that
vast horror chamber.
Maximilian Kolbe would have been hated enough by his Nazi keepers just for being
a Pole. But he was a Catholic priest as well, and his tormentors reserved their
finest cruelty for that class of prisoner. In spite of his obviously wretched
health, he was assigned the hardest and dirtiest tasks in the camp. Dogs were
set upon him supposedly to make him work faster, but actually more to torture
the poor man. And should he stumble or fall in his cruel work, as he did many
times, he would be beaten and kicked till he lost consciousness.
It was late in July 1941 that a prisoner in his own block escaped. By three
o'clock the prisoner was still not found and Fritch selected his victims. One of
them, Francis Gajowniczek, cried out, "My poor wife, my poor children! What will
happen to my family!"
On October 17, 1971, Maximilian Kolbe was beatified. Like his
Master, Jesus Christ,
he had loved his fellow-men to the point of sacrificing his life for them.
"Greater love hath no man than this ..." and these were the opening words of the
papal decree introducing the process of beatification. Fr Kolbe's canonisation
was not long delayed. It was the Pope from Poland, John Paul II, who had the joy
of declaring his compatriot a saint on October 10, 1982.
Francis Gajowniczek and his wife
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