A Conventual Franciscan Priest
St. Maximilian Kolbe (1894-1941) was born on January 7, 1894, in Poland. His baptismal name was Raymond. As a youngster he was drawn to the priesthood, entered religious life with the Conventual Franciscans friars in 1910, and was given the religious name Maximilian. He made solemn vows in 1918, and because of his devotion to the Blessed Mother, added Mary to his religious name. He was sent to Rome where he studied philosophy and theology and was ordained to the priesthood in 1918. He contracted tuberculosis, and because of his illness, returned to Poland.
Father Kolbe became a lecturer in church history in Krakow, Poland, but he is most remembered for his zeal for Mary. Before he was ordained, he established a society to foster devotion to Mary known as the Militia of Mary, an organization of priests, religious, and laity dedicated to promote her as the queen and mother of society and a special aid in the road to conversion to God and holiness. After ordination he also founded The Knights of the Immaculata, a monthly magazine which he edited.
A Traveling Priest
Father Kolbe traveled extensively over the next few years. He was transferred to Grodno, near Warsaw, where he founded a Franciscan community and continued his writings. After another bout with tuberculosis, he moved to Niepokalanow, also in Poland, which means “town of the Immaculata.” In 1930 he made a missionary journey to Nagasaki, Japan, where he founded a second “town of the Immaculata.” He returned to Poland in 1935 due to illness, and upon recovery, he made a second missionary expedition, this time briefly to India, then back to Nagasaki, only to be recalled to Poland to be the superior of 760 Franciscan friars.
The New Information Age
Wherever he was, at home or abroad, Father Kolbe used multimedia – newspapers, magazines, and radio broadcasts – to continue his special ministry to spread devotion to Mary, and his writings reached millions of people around the world.
World War II
The Germans invaded Poland in 1939, and Father Kolbe was arrested by the Gestapo, detained for ten weeks, and released. He continued his writings, some which promoted Polish patriotism and criticized the Nazis. He was arrested again, this time on February 17, 1941, and imprisoned in Warsaw where he was tortured, and then, on May 28, he was transferred to the Auschwitz Concentration Camp.
A Martyr’s Death
At Auschwitz Father Kolbe encouraged terrified fellow prisoners, secretly offered Mass with bread and wine that had been smuggled inside, and heard the confessions of captives who were facing near-certain execution. In July there was an escape attempt on his unit, and in punishment, the Nazis randomly selected ten prisoners to die by starvation. Francis Galjowniczek, one of the ten, cried out, “What will happen to my family?” Father Kolbe stepped forward and said, “I am a Catholic priest from Poland. I would like to take his place because he has a wife and children.” Unexpectedly, the commanding officer accepted Father Kolbe’s offer. Galjowniczek was allowed to step aside, while Father Kolbe and the other nine were led off to the starvation chamber. Two weeks later only four were still alive, and Father Kolbe was the only one still conscious, and the Nazis executed him on August 14, 1941, by lethal injection.
Recognition and Patronage
Pope John Paul II, a fellow countryman, canonized Father Kolbe as a martyr and saint on November 9, 1982. Francis Galjowniczek survived, was present for the ceremony, and lived to the age of 93. St. Maximilian is the patron saint of drug addicts and their families, as well as journalists and political prisoners.