Saint Maximilian Kolbe was born Raymond Kolbe in 1894 in Zdunska Wola, Poland. He and his brother, Francis, went to the minor seminary of the Conventual Franciscan friars, and while there, he and other seminarians founded a group dedicated to Mary Immaculate called “Knights of the Immaculate.”
After Kolbe’s priestly ordination, this group published a newspaper and magazine. They also operated a radio station that was very influential in fostering devotion to Mary and opposing the rise of the Nazi regime.
Kolbe earned a doctorate in Philosophy and another in Theology from two different Roman universities. He went back to Poland and founded a Franciscan friary dedicated to Mary Immaculate called Niepokalanow (City of the Immaculate). It was from there that he continued his work through the media.
Desiring to do missionary work, Kolbe and a few friars set out for China, but meeting resistance there he went to Japan At Nagasaki he established another “City of the Immaculate” which survived the bombing at the end of World War II.
Returning to Poland in 1933, Kolbe lived at Niepokolanow, increasingly more critical of the Germans who had now overtaken the area. He established a hospital and took in many refugees from Poland including about 2,000 Jews whom he hid from Nazi detection.
On February 19, 1941, the Germans shut down Niepokolanow and took Kolbe prisoner, shipping him off to Auschwitz. It was there in late July that a prisoner escaped. The commandant of Auschwitz then chose ten men from among the prisoners to go into a starvation bunker as a means of deterring any further escapes. One man exclaimed, “My wife, my children!” It was at the moment that Kolbe stepped from the line and told the commandant that he would take the place of the man with a family. Upon learning that Kolbe was a Catholic priest, the commandant was eager to send him to the bunker and allowed the other man return to the ranks.
While in the starvation bunker Kolbe ministered to the other prisoners, hearing their confessions, praying with them, and preparing them for death. On August 14, presuming that all would be dead after weeks of starvation, soldiers entered the bunker astonished that Kolbe was weak but still alive. They gave him an injection of carbolic acid and he died shortly thereafter. His body and those of his fellow cellmates were cremated the next day, August 15, the Feast of the Assumption of Mary.
Maximilian Kolbe was canonized as a confessor and “martyr of charity” by St. John Paul II on October 10, 1982. His feast day is the day of his death, August 14. The man whose place Kolbe took in the starvation bunker, Franciszek Gajowniczek, was present at his canonization.
Saint Maximilian Kolbe gave his all, even his life, caring for the poor, the sick, the immigrant and the prisoner. He is a model for Cross Catholic Outreach in caring for the poorest of the poor in our world. By his example and intercession, may we find the courage to love our neighbor.
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