Saint of the Month: St Maximilan Kolbe

St Maximilan Kolbe

Feast day: 14 August

Raymond Kolbe was born on 8 January 1894 in Zdunska Wola in the Kingdom of Poland, which was then part of the Russian Empire. His father was German and his mother Polish. In 1914 his father was hanged by the Russians for campaigning for an independent Poland. Raymond was pious even as a child. The following is an account of a vision he had:

"That night, I asked the Mother of God what was to become of me, a child of faith. Then she came to me holding two crowns, one white, the other red. She asked me if I was willing to accept either of these crowns. The white one meant that I should persevere in purity, and the red that I should become a martyr. I said that I would accept them both."

Raymond was only thirteen when he and his brother joined the conventual Franciscan seminary on Lwow. This was in Austria-Hungary and it meant they had to cross the border which was illegal. In 1910 he was given the religious name Maximilian. He took his final vows in 1914. After a short period in Krakow he went to Rome where he gained a doctorate in philosophy at the Pontifical Gregorian University in 1915. In 1919 he gained a doctorate in theology from the University of St Bonaventure. He was ordained a priest and returned to Poland (which had become independent in 1919) where he settled in the friary of Niepokalanow near Warsaw. Here he developed tuberculosis and this incapacitated him. Throughout his life his health was poor but he offered his sufferings to Mary. His devotion to her led him to reinvigorate the Militia Immaculata to fight against the enemies of the church. The Freemasons had been particularly belligerent against the Vatican. Kolbe helped the Immaculata friars to publish pamphlets and a daily newspaper. He also obtained a radio licence and broadcast his views on religion. He composed the Immaculata prayer and wrote Polish songs to the Virgin Mary.

In 1930 Maximilian travelled to Japan where he spent several years as a missionary. He built a friary on the outskirts of Nagasaki; it later survived the blast from the atomic bomb, shielded by the mountain. He had chosen the site based on Shinto customs, for he tried assimilate local Japanese culture. He dialogued with local Buddhist priests and became friends with some of them. However because of ill health he had to return to Poland.

At the beginning of the Second World War Maximilian was stationed at the friary at Niepokalanow which had expanded from eighteen to six hundred and fifty friars. In 1930 the Nazis invaded Poland. The friary gave refuge to 3,000 refugees, 2,000 of whom were Jews. They were all given food and shelter. Maximilian was accused later by some Jews of anti-Semitism but his actions show otherwise. He was strongly critical of the Nazi regime both on radio and in his writing.

On 17 February 1941 he was arrested for harbouring Jews, and sent to Auschwitz. He was branded as prisoner no. 16670. There he was sent to the work camp where he was made to carry heavy stone blocks with which to build the wall of the crematorium. The overseer was a ex-criminal called Krott who singled Maximilian out for brutal treatment, including making him carry extra heavy planks. Maximilian collapsed and was beaten so savagely by Krott that he was left for dead in the mud. He was rescued by fellow prisoners and made a recovery in hospital. All through this suffering he kept his faith. He wrote to his mother:

Dear Mama,
At the end of the month of May I was transferred to the camp of Auschwitz. Everything is well in my regard. Be tranquil about my health, because the good God is everywhere and provides for everything with love. It would be well if you do not write to me until you have received other news from me, as I do not know how long I will stay here.
Cordial greetings and kisses.
Affectionately,
Raymond.

In July 1941 three prisoners appeared to have escaped from the camp. The Deputy Commander ordered ten prisoners to be chosen to starve to death in the cellar. One of the men, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried:

“My wife! My children!”

Maximilian volunteered to take his place. The commander was rather surprised but agreed. Franciszek said later:

"I could only thank him with my eyes. I was stunned and could hardly grasp what was going on. The immensity of it: I, the condemned, am to live and someone else willingly and voluntarily offers his life for me - a stranger. Is this some dream? I was put back in my place without having had time to say anything to Maximilian Kolbe. I was saved. And I owe to him the fact that I can tell you all this. The news quickly spread all round the camp. It was the first and last time that such an incident happened in the whole history of Auschwitz."

The prisoners were starved to death in the underground cellar. Maximilian led them in prayer and hymns to Mary. A Polish prisoner who attended them said that they suffered terribly. Even the SS guard was impressed by Maximilian’s courage. He never complained. After a week most of the prisoners had died of dehydration or starvation. The few prisoners that were left were injected with carbolic acid. Maximilian died on 14 August. His remains were cremated on the following day, the feast of the Assumption.

Maximilian was canonised in 1982 by Pope John Paul II (who himself had lived through the German occupation of Poland). Franciszek Gajownizek was present at his canonization.

St Maximilian Kolbe pray for us.

Note: Franciszek Gajowniczek was reunited with his wife Helena after the war, though sadly his sons were killed in the Russian bombardment of Poland. He told an American chaplain that as long as he had breath in his lungs he would consider it his duty to tell people of the heroic act of loveby Maximilian Kolbe. Franciszek died in 1995 at the age of 93. He was buried in the cemetery of Maximilian's friary at Niepokalanow.