Feast Day : August 14
Maximilian Kolbe was born Raymond Kolbe on January 7, 1894, in Zdunska–Wola, then located in Russian Poland, to a poor family. At age 10 he had a vision that changed his life. One day when he was misbehaving, his mother said, “Raymond, what is to become of you?” The boy went to church asking the same question and prayed about it. The Blessed Virgin Mary appeared in a vision and held out two crowns to him. One was white for purity, the other red for martyrdom. She asked him which would he choose, and he answered, “I choose both.” Raymond attended a trade school and entered secondary school in 1907. He had a special love for the sciences, and even designed a rocket ship and applied for a patent on it. When the Conventual Franciscans opened a minor seminary, both he and his brother, Leopoli, applied. Raymond took the habit on September 4, 1910, and adopted the name Maximilian. He endured inner trials and was sent to Rome to study. He earned a doctorate in philosophy and later a doctorate in theology. He saw indifference as the most deadly poison, and in 1917 founded an order, the Knights of the Immaculata, to counteract it. Members dedicated themselves to Mary Immaculate and pledged to work for the salvation of souls, particularly among the enemies of the Church, through prayer and apostolic work. The order was made a Primary Union by Pope Pius XI (r. 1922–39) in 1926. Maximilian contracted tuberculosis in 1920, and his health was severely weakened for the rest of his life. He spent two years in a sanatorium. For the remainder of the 1920s and into the 1930s, Maximilian worked to build his order, and even went to Japan. He was recalled to Poland in 1939 to head the provincial chapter, the City of the Immaculata. World War II brought attacks by the Nazis. Maximilian was arrested by the Gestapo in 1939, then released. He was arrested again in 1941 and jailed in Warsaw. On May 28, 1941, Maximilian was among about 320 prisoners who were transported to the Auschwitz concentration camp. His openness as a Catholic priest brought him severe treatment. He was regularly beaten, attacked by dogs, given the worst job details and made to carry corpses. Once he was beaten and left for dead; his fellow prisoners carried him back to camp, where he recovered. His chronic lung inflammation required him to spend time in the infirmary. Throughout the brutalities, Maximilian maintained a positive outlook and was a source of strength to many prisoners. He heard confessions, gave conditional absolution to the dead and counseled people. He always made himself last for any medical treatment. In July 1941, a prisoner escaped. Camp rules were that if a missing prisoner was not caught and returned, 10 people in the cell block would be killed in reprisal. The commandant went through the ranks selecting the 10 victims at random. One was a Polish soldier, Sergeant Francis Gajowniczek, who cried out in distress, “What will happen to my family?” Immediately Maximilian stepped forward and volunteered himself as a replacement. The commandant accepted. The 10 men were herded into a starvation cell, stripped of their clothing and left to die. They received no food or water. One by one they died; some were kicked to death by the guards. Maximilian led the survivors in prayer and hymns, reminding them that their souls could not be killed. After two weeks four men remained, including Maximilian. The impatient commandant wanted the cell for more victims, and so he ordered the four executed by injection of lethal carbolic acid. When his turn came, Maximilian calmly raised his arm to the executioner. He died on August 14, 1941, and was cremated the following day. The Knights of the Immaculata have spread around the world. The order is now known as the Militia of the Immaculata.