Everyone seems to know about Fr. Maximillian Kolbe killed at Auschwitz. But do you know his life and how devoted he was to evangelization?
Father Kolbe was born Raymond Kolbe On January 8, 1894, in Zdunska Wola, the Kingdom of Poland, within the Russian Empire. He was the second son of Julius Kolbe and his wife Maria Dabrowska. Julius worked at home as a weaver
then as a miller and farmer. Maria was a midwife. They both were Franciscan Lay Tertiaries, fomenting a deep faith in their children.
Raymond was described as being mischievous and a bit of a wild child. He was a trial to his parents. However, at the age of twelve, he was gifted with a vision which changed his life. He wrote:
That night, I asked the Mother of God what was to become of me.
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 both.
At the age of 13, Raymond and his older brother made the harrowing trip over the border between Russian Poland to Austro-Hungary to attend the junior seminary run by the Franciscans in Lwow. At this time, Lwow was the fourth largest city in Austro-Hungary, and the largest city in Galicia, a predominantly Polish area of the kingdom. It leads that part of Europe in technology and architecture. Lwow, written Lviv in Ukraine, was the center of a number of Polish independence organizations, including the paramilitary organization called Riflemen’s Association.
Raymond excelled in science, technology, electronics and mechanics. He was so enamored of the concept of the military at this age that he was tempted to drop the dream of the priesthood and adopt the dream of being a soldier. He eventually became a soldier, but of Mary.
In 1910, the sixteen-year-old Raymond entered the novitiate and was given the religious name Maximillian. A year later, he professed his first vows. To continue his studies, Maximillian moved to the Pontifical Gregorian University, in Rome. As he studied, World War I began.
Back in Poland, Julius Kolbe became a freedom fighter in 1914, joining the Julius Jozef Pilsudki Polish Legions in that year to fight the Russian Imperial Army. He is said to have been hanged by the Russians as a prisoner of war.
In Rome, Maximillian had little time to mourn his father since he was busy studying physics, developing a love of astrophysics, and philosophy. In 1915, at the young age of 21, he received his Ph.D. in philosophy.
Studying for his ordination, Maximillian witnessed Freemason demonstrations against Pope Pius X and his successor, Pope Benedict XV. This determined his future. On October 16, 1917, only three days after the Miracle of the Sun, in Portugal, Kolbe and a handful of friends, organized the Militia Immaculata (Army of the Immaculate). The goal of this army would be to work for the conversion of sinners and enemies of the Church (especially the Freemasons). They vowed to do so with the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In fact, they embroidered the Miraculous Medal on their habits.
Maximillian was finally ordained in 1918 and, the following year, he was recalled to Poland to teach history at the Krakow seminary. He remained there for three years. At the same time, he began to fight tuberculosis, which was to come and go throughout the rest of his life.
Fr. Kolbe did not limit his accomplishments to teaching at the seminary. His love of technology gave a very modern approach to evangelization. He used modern printing technology and distribution strategies. He next started a publishing concern, beginning with a monthly periodical entitled “Knights of the Immaculata”. At its peak, the “Knight” had a circulation of almost 3/4 million a month. He printed flyers, brochures and booklets, distributing them to Catholics to promote Mary throughout Poland. From 1922 to 1927, his printing center was in Grodno.
By 1927, the land had been donated to the order to build a monastery in Teresin, 42 km west of Warsaw. They named it Niepokalanow, or the City of the Immaculate. The small monastery grew quickly, becoming a major religious publishing center. Shortly, the monks added a daily paper, called “The Little Daily”, with a circulation of 137,000 weekdays and 225,000 Sundays and holy days. In 1929, they added a junior seminary. The population of the monastery went from 11 to over 600 in a decade.
Fr. Kolbe needed to expand his missionary work and, in 1930, he and a few companions went to Shanghai, China. This ended with no success due to lack of money and personnel. Their next venture was Nagasaki, Japan. Using Shinto building principles, a small monastery was built on the side of a mountain facing away from the city. This proved providential as the mountain protected the monastery from the atomic bomb in August 1945. This monastery is still active today in the Roman Catholic community of Japan. Within a month of establishing the monastery, the monks had come up with a Japanese version of the “Knight” despite not knowing the language themselves. Fr. Kolbe worked there a while then moved on to India. He established another monastery there. It did not survive as well as Nagasaki’s. The harvest was plenty, but the workers were few.
By 1936, Fr. Kolbe’s tuberculosis was acute and he needed to go home to Poland. The publishing house was humming along well. He had a hobby of amateur radio communications. He actually talked to people and spread his evangelization by that technology. Soon the monastery expanded this hobby into a radio station, speaking about Catholicism for hours every day. Once that was up and running, he began plans for a movie studio. Such plans, unfortunately, did not last too long.
On September 3, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and war was declared. The small country surrendered in two weeks. Most of the monks left the monastery to help their families or to fight. Kolbe and a few others remained and opened their hospital to aid the needy. The town was captured and Kolbe was sent to a local prison for three months. The Germans offered him a document to sign which would have recognized him as a German, due to his ancestry. He refused. He was Polish.
In December, 1939, Fr. Kolbe was freed to go back to the monastery. Once there, the monks provided shelter for refugees. He is known to have hidden 2000 Jews. At the same time, the Germans gave him permission to continue his religious publishing. What they chose to write did not endear the monastery to the German overseers. They were anti-German in nature.
On February 17, 1941, the monastery was shut down. Fr. Kolbe was arrested by the Gestapo and taken to Pawiak prison. Within months, he was transferred to Auschwitz.
Fr. Kolbe did not hide his priesthood. Because of this, he was subjected to severe violence and harassment. He was given a job building the crematorium. One time he was beaten severely and left for dead. Fellow prisoners sneaked him into the prison hospital. Rather than simply recover, the calm priest heard confessions and reassured others. Even when the priest got back to his dormitory, he would hardly sleep, keeping his non-work hours for continuing his evangelization.
During his last days, when he and nine others were put into a starving room for two weeks. He almost constantly stood or knelt in the middle of the room, leading prayers to Our Lady, encouraging the others. Fr. Kolbe was one of the last to remain alive. To expedite things, the guards gave him an injection of carbolic acid. Fr. Kolbe raised his arm and calmly awaited death. This was on August 14. The next day, on August 15, the Feast of the Assumption, Fr. Kolbe’s body was creamated.
A survivor of the camp, Jerzy Bielecki described Fr. Kolbe’s death thus: “a shock filled with hope, bringing new life and strength…It was like a powerful shaft of light in the darkness of the camp”.
Saint Maximillian Kolbe is the patron saint of the 20th century, drug addicts, prisoners, and the pro-life movement.