Church Remembers Saint Maximilian Kolbe – Patron Saint Of Our Difficult Century

St Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish Franciscan who volunteered to die in the place of a stranger at the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Rajmund Kolbe was born in 1894 in the Polish town of Zduńska Wola which at that time was part of Russian Empire.

His father was German and his mother Polish. In 1907 Maximilian and his elder brother Francis decided to join the Franciscans. He professed his first vows in 1911, adopting the name Maximilian.

He was sent to Rome, where he studied philosophy, theology, mathematics, and physics. He earned a doctorate in philosophy in 1915 and a doctorate in theology in 1919, before then returning to Poland to found a monastery, a seminary, a radio station, and several other ministries.

Between 1930 and 1936 he worked in Japan, where he founded a monastery at the outskirts of Nagasaki, as well as a Japanese newspaper and a seminary.

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, criticizing Nazi activities through his reports.

As a result of his activities, he was arrested by the German Gestapo on 17 February 1941 and imprisoned in the Pawiak prison. On 25 May he was transferred to Auschwitz I as prisoner #16670.

In July 1941 a man from Kolbe’s barracks vanished, prompting SS-Hauptsturmführer Karl Fritzsch, the deputy camp commander, to pick 10 men from the same barracks to be starved to death in Block 13 (notorious for torture), in order to deter further escape attempts. (The man who had disappeared was later found drowned in the camp latrine.) One of the selected men, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out, lamenting his family, and Kolbe volunteered to take his place.

During his time in Block 13 he led the men in songs and prayer. After three weeks of dehydration and starvation, only Kolbe and three others were still alive. He was the last to die, enduring two weeks of starvation, thirst and neglect. Finally he was murdered with an injection of carbolic acid.

Fr Kolbe was canonised by Pope John Paul II in 1982 in the presence of Franciszek Gajowniczek, the man whose life he had saved. He was declared a martyr of charity and the patron saint of drug addicts, political prisoners, families, journalists, prisoners and the pro-life movement. Pope John Paul II declared him the “The Patron Saint of Our Difficult Century”.

He is one of ten 20th century martyrs from across the world who are depicted in statues above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey, London.

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