It is sometimes the most horrible of circumstances that produces the most beautiful of saints.  Such was the case for St. Maximilian Kolbe who became a martyr in the death camp of Auschwitz during World War II.

Born in 1894 to devout Catholic parents in Russian-occupied Poland, Maximilian, whose baptismal name was Raymond, didn’t look much like a saint as a young child. Mischievous, sometimes even wild, he was a bit of a trial to his parents. All that changed when he was about 12 years old which, at that time, was the age of First Communion. That was when he received a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary. “I asked the Mother of God what was to become of me,” he later recalled. “Then she came to me holding two crowns, one white, the other red. She asked 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.” From that moment on, he was never the same.

He entered the minor seminary at 16, when he took the name Maximilian, and was ordained to the priesthood at 24. He had always considered religious indifference as the greatest threat in his day and made it his life’s mission to combat it. Not surprisingly, he did it all through the patronage of the Blessed Mother.

In 1917, he and six friends founded the Militia Immaculata (Army of the Immaculate One) for the conversion of sinners through the intercession of Mary. Though stricken with tuberculosis – he would suffer from frail health for the rest of his life – he began the publication of a magazine called “Knight of the Immaculate” which, at its height, had a press run of 750,000 a month. By 1930, he had traveled to Japan and begun a Japanese language version of the same publication and in 1931, founded a monastery in Nagasaki, which not only later survived the atom bomb, but remains the center of Franciscan work today.

All was not well in Europe, however. He had returned to Poland and by 1939, three weeks after the invasion of the Nazis, he was arrested, but released three months later. It would be a short reprieve; he continued his priestly ministry and was arrested again in February 1941. In May, he was transferred to the Auschwitz concentration camp and became prisoner number 16670.

In July, an escape from the camp prompted the selection of 10 men to die as an example to the others. Though not chosen, Father Kolbe volunteered to take the place of a man who had a wife and children. He spent the final two weeks of his life praying and singing hymns with the other prisoners. Finally given a lethal injection, he died on Aug. 14, 1941.

Father Maximilian Kolbe was canonized in 1982; present was the man whose life he saved.

St. Maximilian Kolbe’s feast day is Aug. 14.

Sources for this article include:

“Saint Maximilian Kolbe.” CatholicSaints.Info. Feb. 17, 2022.