The Life of St Maximilian Kolbe
In the mid-eighties of last century, a group of concerned Catholics in the Rockingham area formed a committee for the purpose of lobbying the Catholic Education Commission of Western Australia to establish a Catholic secondary school in their area. Fr Finbar Walsh, parish priest of Our Lady of Lourdes parish, Rockingham, recommended that the proposed school be named after the newly canonised saint Maximilian Kolbe. He was inspired by the man’s faith and his devotion to Mary; it was his hope that those who attended the school would also be inspired by his example to embrace their faith with greater fervour. So, who is St Maximilian Kolbe?
The following outline of the life of St Maximilian Kolbe has been compiled from: Ricciardi, Antonio (1982). St Maximilian Kolbe: apostle of our difficult age. Boston: Pauline Books & Media.
His birth and his childhood
Raymond Kolbe was born on January 8th in Zdunska-Wola, Poland. His parents were Jules and Marie Kolbe. They lived in rented accommodation and operated a weaving business. Raymond had an older brother named Francis. His younger brother was Joseph. Valentine died as an infant and the youngest, Anthony, died at the age of four. His parents moved the family to Pabience, a nearby village where the rented a small house and continued their weaving business. They also opened a small shop and rented three vegetable gardens.
A vision of Mary with two crowns
Raymond had a vision of Mary who presented him with two crowns, one red and the other white. She asked him which one he wanted. He chose both crowns.
Joining the Conventual Franciscans
Francis and Raymond entered the Franciscan Order and attended the minor seminary in Lwow. Joseph followed a few years later.
On September 4th, Raymond received the religious habit of a Franciscan Friar and chose Maximilian as his religious name.
On September 5th, he made his simple profession, vowing himself to the practice of the virtues of poverty, chastity and obedience, according to the rule of St Francis and the Constitutions of the Friars Minor Conventual, a branch of the Franciscan Order.
A student in Rome …
Friar Maximilian was sent to Rome to study theology ad philosophy.
On All Saints Day, Friar Maximilian made his solemn profession and added the name of Mary to his religious name: Friar Maximilian Mary Kolbe.
On January 20th, the 75th anniversary of the apparition of Mary to Alphonse Ratisbonne in the Church of S. Andrea della Fratte in Rome, Friar Maximilian was inspired to found the Militia Immaculatae, or Knights of the Immaculata movement, and to choose the Miraculous Medal as the shield and insignia of the Knights.
On April 28th, the feast of St Paul of the Cross, Friar Maximilian Kolbe was ordained a priest. He was one of a hundred men ordained in Rome on that day in the Basilica Sant’Andrea Delle Valle. On the following day, he celebrated his first Mass in the Basilica di Sant’Andrea della Fratte, at the side altar dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Fr Maximilian Mary Kolbe returns to Poland
Fr Maximilian was granted his doctorate in philosophy and his doctorate in theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. On July 23rd, he left for Poland. He taught theology and philosphy at the Franciscan Seminary in Krakow and established the first Marian "focus groups" there.
On August 11th, he was admitted to a sanatorium in Zakopane where he was treated for tuberculosis.
He returned to Krakow and published the first edition of The Knight of the Immaculata. This became the monthly publication of the Militia Immaculata (MI).
On September 19th, he returned to the sanatorium for convalescence and remained there until April 13th, 1927.
The City of the Immaculata (Niepokalanow)
Having purchased a printing press, Fr Maximilian published two monthly magazines: The Knight, which was the official publication of the MI; and The Seraphic Flame, which was the official magazine of the Third Order of St Francis. The Knight had a circulation of 60,000 copies. Fr Maximilian had 17 friars working with him. In Poland, there were 126,000 members in the MI. In November, Fr Maximilian moved his printing works to Niepokalanow (City of the Immaculata) near the town of Teresin. He had started out in 1922 with one suitcase. When he moved to Niepokalanow, it took 8 railcars to transport the publishing house he had established.
Two houses of formation were established at Niepokalanow, one for Franciscan Brothers and another for those wanting to be ordained to the priesthood in the Franciscan Order. Fr Maximilian was in charge of the formation of those who entered the Order and studied at Niepokalanow.
Fr Maximilian the missionary priest
On February 26th, Fr Maximilian and 4 Brothers set out for Japan to establish another City of the Immaculata. They landed at Nagasaki on April 24th. Fr Maximilian wrote The Knight in Latin and his students translated it into Japanese. The first edition of The Knight in Japanese was published on May 24th. It was called Seibo No Kishi.
On May 16th, the Japanese City of the Immaculata, known as Mugenzai No Sono, was opened. It was built on the slope of Mount Hikosan, in Hongochi, a suburb of Nagasaki.
Fr Maximilian went to India to investigate the possibility of establishing the MI there. The political situation in Europe prevented its establishment even though he had support from his Order and from the Church in India. In 1981, two friars from Malta set up Nirmalaram ("Garden of the Immaculata") in the town of Chotty in India.
The monthly circulation of Seibo No Kishi reached 50,000 copies. Fr Maximilian journeyed back to Poland for the General Chapter of the Franciscan Order. He returned to Japan to continue the work of the MI in that country.
Guardian of Niepokalanow
On May 28th, Fr Maximilian returned to Poland to participate in the Franciscan Provincial Chapter. He was elected to the position of "Guardian of Niepokalanow" and never returned to Japan. The community in Niepokalanow grew in size under his leadership. By 1939, there were 762 Franciscans living and working there.
On September 1st, Germany invaded Poland. The German army advanced on Warsaw. Niepokalanow is situated about 40 kms out of Warsaw and it was surrounded by the invading army. On September 5th, Fr Maximilian sent most of his community away from Niepokalanow and maintained the property with the help of 50 Brothers and 5 priests. They took care of the sick and the many refugees who sought sanctuary within its walls. On September 12th, the German army occupied Niepokalanow. On September 19th, all, except for two friars, were deported to the concentration camp at Amtitz in Germany. On November 9th, they were transferred to Ostrzewrow in Poland. On December 8th, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, they were released and allowed to return to Niepokalanow. Gradually, many of the Brothers returned to the community and its numbers rose to about 300 members.
Niepokalanow became home to 2000 men expelled from Posnania and 1500 Jews who took refuge there. On November 20th, the German Propaganda Office and the Gestapo gave Fr Maximilian permission to start publishing The Knight again. Only one issue came off the press.
On February 17th, Fr Maximilian was arrested and taken to Pawiak prison in Warsaw. On May 28th, he was transported to Auschwitz. In July, he was moved to the hospital in the camp because he had been diagnosed with a lung infection and bronchitis. At the end of July, he was discharged from the hospital and moved to Block 14.On August 3rd, a prisoner escaped from Block 14 and the Commandant decided to punish the other prisoners by selecting ten men from the Block to be executed. One of the condemned men was Francis Gajowniczek, a sergeant in the Polish army. He had a wife and young family. Gajowniczek pleaded for his life. Fr Maximilian volunteered to take his place. The ten men, including Fr Maximilian, were stripped of their clothes and placed in a small cell without food or water. They were starved to death. On August 14th, the eve of the Feast of the Assumption, only 4 men, including Fr Maximilian, remained alive. The director of the hospital at Auschwitz, injected carbolic acid into their veins and they died. Fr Maximilian's body was cremated in one of the ovens that burned day and night in Auschwitz.
Saint Maximilian Mary Kolbe
The cause for the beatification of Fr Maximilian Kolbe was officially opened in Rome on March 16th.
On October 17th, he was beatified.
On October 10th, Pope John Paul II canonised Fr Maximilian and proclaimed him a saint of the Church. His feast day is celebrated on August 14th.