by Chris Canniff
Saint Maximilian Kolbe was born Raymund Kolbe on January 8, 1894 in a small town in central Poland, which was part of the Russian Empire at the time.
Kolbe experienced a vision of the Blessed Mother during his childhood, which he later described as follows: “That night, I asked the Mother of God what was to become of me, a Child of Faith. 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, he decided to join the Franciscans along with one of his brothers, so they fled their homeland together, illegally crossing the border from Russia into Austria-Hungary to attend the minor seminary there.
In 1914, he professed his final vows in Rome, and he chose for himself the names Maximilian Maria, showing his devotion to the Virgin Mary. This same year, his father, who was fighting for Poland’s separation from Russia, was captured and hanged by the Russians in an early skirmish of World War I.
Kolbe earned two doctorates, one in philosophy and the other in theology, in 1915 and 1919 respectively. While studying for these degrees in Rome, he witnessed extreme protests against the Church by Freemasons who distributed vitriolic pamphlets and hung images of Lucifer defeating St. Michael under the windows at the Vatican. Galvanized by these demonstrations, he formed a Marian organization known as the Militia Immaculata to work for the conversion of souls, especially those of enemies of the Church.
Following his priestly ordination in 1918, he returned to Poland, founding a monastery and seminary, broadcasting a radio show, and publishing a top-selling Catholic periodical. During the 1930s, Kolbe moved to Japan and spent six years there doing much of the same work that he had done in Poland. The monastery that he founded outside of Nagasaki remarkably withstood the atomic bombing of August 1945.
Upon the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Kolbe’s Poland was the first to suffer at the hands of the Nazi regime. He secretly sheltered countless refugees at his friary, including nearly 2,000 Jews. The Gestapo arrested him in February 1941, and they sent him to Auschwitz where he was known as prisoner 16670.
In the first summer of his captivity, a few men had escaped the camp. Attempting to reassert their authority, the SS decided to choose 10 men for death by starvation to stress the seriousness of disobeying the camp’s leadership. One of the men chosen to die broke down and wept for his wife and children. It was then that Kolbe stepped forward and offered to take this man’s place.
Waiting for death in the cell, Kolbe celebrated Mass for the others condemned with him. They also sang hymns of praise to God. After two weeks, only Kolbe survived. Bothered by his placid serenity and relentless clinging to life, the Nazis injected him with carbolic acid thus ending his heroic life.