St. Maksymilian Maria “Maximilian” Kolbe was a Polish Conventual Franciscan friar who volunteered to die in the place of a Jewish refugee at the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz during World War II. St. Kolbe was declared the ‘martyr of charity’ by Pope John Paul II. He was canonized for his noble humanitarian work after joining the Franciscan Conventuals till the end his life. His works in Poland include establishing the Roman Catholic periodical ‘Rycerz Niepokalanej’ (‘The Knight of Mary Immaculate’ in English). He also founded the ‘Niepokalanów’ (‘City of Mary Immaculate’ in English) and brought almost 700 Catholic friars together. After becoming the director of Poland’s chief Catholic publishing complex, he started working for the wellbeing of the Jews who were being tormented by the Nazis. He was arrested for his anti-Nazi works, including his publications. Maximilian Kolbe continued to work as a priest while he was imprisoned at Warsaw, holding masses and hearing confessions of the unfortunate prison mates.
Childhood & Early Life
St. Maksymilian Maria Kolbe was born as Rajmund Kolbe on January 8, 1894, in Zduńska Wola, in Poland, which was a part of Russia during that time. His father Julius Kolbe was a weaver by profession, while his mother Maria Dąbrowska was a midwife.
Kolbe moved to Pabianice, a city in central Poland, with his ethnic German father and Polish mother when he was a child. He grew up there with his four brothers.
When he was twelve years old, Kolbe saw a dream about the Virgin Mary. According to his version of the incident, ‘the mother of god’ offered him two crowns, a red one and a white one when he asked her about his future. The white crown signified purity while the red one meant he would become a martyr. He offered to be both if required.
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Joining the Conventual Franciscans
Maximilian Kolbe and his elder brother Francis Kolbe joined the Order of Friars Minor Conventual where he was allowed to be part of the ‘novitiate’. When he was a part of the ‘novitiate’, Kolbe was given his religious name ‘Maximilian’ and adopted the additional name ‘Maria’.
Between his first and final vows (1911 and 1914, respectively), Kolbe was sent to Rome by the ‘Minorites’. While in Rome, Kolbe attended the Pontifical Gregorian University to study philosophy.
In 1915, he completed his doctorate in philosophy and continued to study theology at the Pontifical University of St. Bonaventure. He also received a doctorate in theology around 1920.
While studying theology, Kolbe founded ‘The Militia Immaculatae’ (‘Army of the Immaculate One’ in English). The Militia of the Immaculatae was a Catholic evangelization movement and supported ‘intercession’ to the ‘mother of god’, Virgin Mary, for the conversion of Freemasons and the sinners.
Return to Poland
Towards the end of 1918, Kolbe has ordained a priest, and a few months later in 1919, he returned to Poland. Poland was newly independent at that time and Kolbe spent his days promoting the “Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary.”
In 1922, he founded the Polish Roman-Catholic monthly magazine, ‘Rycerz Niepokalanej’, which was banned in Communist Poland (from 1952 to 1981). Given Kolbe’s strong dislike of the Communist movement, it wasn’t a surprise his publication wasn’t accepted by the regime.
Work in Asia
Kolbe’s real work for the Christian missions started in east Asia where he spent more than half a decade in the 1930s. In Nagasaki, Japan, Kolbe founded a monastery for the Order of Friars Minor Conventual.
When Nagasaki was bombed by the United States, the monastery survived as it was on a mountain that escaped the effects of the attack.
Return to Poland & Life at Auschwitz
After returning to Poland, Kolbe started a radio station named ‘Radio Niepokalanów’. When World War II began, Kolbe worked at the monastery treating injured and ill people.
When the Germans invaded the town, he was captured. He was offered the ‘Deutsche Volksliste’, which he duly declined. He kept working as a friar and published his works, opposing the Nazi-Germans.
His publications caught the Germans’ attention and the monastery was closed down. Kolbe was arrested and was taken to the Pawiak prison. He was later transferred to the Auschwitz concentration camp as a prisoner.
The prisoners were put to tough and inhumane work with little to eat. They were tortured, harassed and violently beaten all the while by the Nazi guards. Kolbe continued to serve as a priest, treating the injured and ill prisoners. He also held masses and occasionally listened to their grief, comforting them with his advice.
In 1941, one prisoner somehow managed to escape the camp. This angered the deputy camp commander SS- Hauptsturmführer Karl Fritzsch immensely. He passed an order to randomly select ten prisoners who would be starved to death in an underground prison as a lesson.
Kolbe was not selected among those ten prisoners but he volunteered to take the place of one unfortunate prisoner named Franciszek Gajowniczek, who was married and a father of a child.
Kolbe remained calm inside the cell and after two weeks, when everyone had died of thirst and hunger, he was the only one alive. The commander ordered to empty the cell and kill Kolbe with a lethal injection. He was given a lethal injection (carbolic acid) on his left arm and was killed on 14 August 1941.
In 1955, the Vatican recognized him as a ‘Servant of God’. Pope Paul VI declared him venerable in 1969, and two years later, ‘beatified’ him as a ‘Confessor of the Faith’. Pope John Paul II canonized him as a saint in 1982, and later declared him a confessor and a ‘Martyr of Charity’.
His recognition as a ‘Christian Martyr’ generated a lot of controversy among the Catholic community. There were arguments that he was not killed in Auschwitz due to his religious faith. Thus, he was not eligible to be called a martyr of the faith. This prompted the pope to give him the title ‘Martyr of Charity’.