Founder of the Militia Immaculata
Saint Maximilian Kolbe (8 January 1894 – 14 August 1941), was a Polish Conventual Franciscan friar who volunteered to die in place of a stranger in the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz in Poland. He was canonized on 10 October 1982 by Pope John Paul II, and declared a martyr of charity. He is the patron saint of drug addicts, political prisoners, families, journalists, prisoners, amateur radio, and the pro-life movement. Pope John Paul II declared him "The Patron Saint of Our Difficult Century".
Maximilian Kolbe was born Rajmund Kolbe on 8 January 1894 in Zduńska Wola, which was part of the Russian Empire at the time. He was the second son of Julius Kolbe and Maria Dabrowska. His father was an ethnic German and his mother of Polish origins. He had four brothers, Francis, Joseph, Walenty (who lived a year) and Andrew (who lived four years).
His parents moved to Pabianice where they worked first as basket weavers. Later, his mother worked as a midwife (often donating her services), and owned a shop in part of her rented house which sold groceries and household goods. Julius Kolbe worked at the Krushe and Ender Mill and also worked on rented land where he grew vegetables. In 1914, Julius joined Józef Piłsudski's Polish Legions and was captured by the Russians and hanged for fighting for the independence of a partitioned Poland. Kolbe's life was strongly influenced by a childhood vision of the Virgin Mary that he later described:
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 them both.
In 1907, Kolbe and his elder brother Francis decided to join the Conventual Franciscans. They illegally crossed the border between Russia and Austria-Hungary and joined the Conventual Franciscan junior seminary in Lwów. In 1910, Kolbe was allowed to enter the novitiate. He professed his first vows in 1911, adopting the name Maximilian, and the final vows in 1914, in Rome, adopting the names Maximilian Maria, to show his devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Kolbe would later sing hymns to the Virgin Mary in the concentration camp.
In 1912, he was sent to Kraków, and in the same year to a college in Rome, where he studied philosophy, theology, mathematics, and physics. He earned a doctorate in philosophy in 1915 at the Pontifical Gregorian University, and the doctorate in theology in 1919 at the Pontifical University of St. Bonaventure. During his time as a student, he witnessed vehement demonstrations against Popes St. Pius X and Benedict XV in Rome during an anniversary celebration by the Freemasons. According to St. Maximilian,
They placed the black standard of the "Giordano Brunisti" under the windows of the Vatican. On this standard the archangel, St. Michael, was depicted lying under the feet of the triumphant Lucifer. At the same time, countless pamphlets were distributed to the people in which the Holy Father was attacked shamefully.
This event inspired Saint Kolbe to organize the Militia Immaculata, or Army of Mary, to work for conversion of sinners and enemies of the Catholic Church, specifically the Freemasons, through the intercession of the Virgin Mary. So serious was St. Maximilian about this goal that he added to the Miraculous Medal prayer:
Oh Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee. And for all those who do not have recourse to thee; especially the Masons and all those recommended to thee.
Besides the obvious fact that he sheltered Jewish refugees during the war, the testimony of people who worked close to him is that he respected the Jews: "When Jews came to me asking for a piece of bread, I asked Father Maximilian if I could give it to them in good conscience, and he answered me, 'Yes, it is necessary to do this because all men are our brothers.' Between 1930 and 1936, he took a series of missions to Japan, where he founded a monastery at the outskirts of Nagasaki, a Japanese paper, and a seminary. The monastery he founded remains prominent in the Roman Catholic Church in Japan. Kolbe decided to build the monastery on a mountainside that, according to Shinto beliefs, was not the side best suited to be in harmony with nature. When the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Kolbe's monastery was saved because the other side of the mountain took the main force of the blast.
During the Second World War, he provided shelter to refugees from Greater Poland, including 2,000 Jews whom he hid from Nazi persecution in his friary in Niepokalanów. He was also active as a radio amateur, with Polish call letters SP3RN, condemning Nazi activities.
On 17 February 1941, he was arrested by the German Gestapo and imprisoned in the Pawiak prison. On May 28, he was transferred to Auschwitz as prisoner #16670. At the end of July 1941, three prisoners disappeared from the camp, prompting SS-Hauptsturmführer Karl Fritzsch, the deputy camp commander, to pick 10 men to be starved to death in an underground bunker in order to deter further escape attempts. When one of the selected men, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out, "My wife! My children!", Kolbe volunteered to take his place.
In the starvation cell, he celebrated Mass each day for as long as he was able and gave Holy Communion to the prisoners covertly during the course of the day; the bread given to prisoners was unleavened and so could be used in the Eucharist, and sympathetic guards gave him materials, including wine, that he could use.
He led the other condemned men in song and prayer and encouraged them telling them that they would soon be with Mary in Heaven. Each time the guards checked on him, he was standing or kneeling in the middle of the cell and looking calmly at those who entered. After two weeks of dehydration and starvation, only Kolbe remained alive. The guards wanted the bunker emptied and so gave Kolbe a lethal injection of carbolic acid. Some who were present at the injection say that he raised his left arm and calmly waited for the injection. His remains were cremated on August 15, the feast of the Assumption of Mary.
Father Kolbe was beatified as a confessor by Pope Paul VI in 1971 and canonized as a martyr by Pope John Paul II on 10 October 1982,