St. Maximilian remembered as feast approaches

By Alicja Pozywio | Staff writer
Sunday, August 14, 2011

St. Maximilian remembered as feast approaches

A side chapel at Marytown, the National Shrine of St. Maximilian Kolbe, features a mosaic and relics of the saint. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)
Marytown is home to relics related to St. Maximilian Kolbe, including this prayer book used by Conventual Franciscan brothers when he was the community's superior in Poland. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)
The Auschwitz death camp is commemorated in a Holocaust exhibit in the basement of the shrine. A replica of the cell where St. Maximilian Kolbe died is part of the exhibit. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

There is no better place in the entire country for a shrine to St. Maximilian Kolbe, whose feast is celebrated on Aug. 14, than Marytown, in Libertyville. In a way the shrine was designed by the saint himself.

Reduced to No. 16670 in Auschwitz, the martyr of Poland dreamed big. He wanted the whole world to be full of towns devoted to the Blessed Mother, whom he called the Immaculata.

He built two such towns — one in Niepoklanow (1927), Poland, the second in a poor district of Nagasaki-Hongochi (1931), Japan. The third town dedicated to the Blessed Mother was founded in Libertyville in 1948 by two Conventual Franciscan Fathers Dominic Szymanski and Cyryl Kita. Szymanski corresponded with St. Maximilian and Kita was in seminary with the saint in Rome.

Support to build Marytown came from all over and all walks of life.

“Dominic told me that the first donation he got was 25 cents from a little girl,” said Conventual Franciscan Brother Martin Schmitz, 81, a semi-retired staff member at Marytown who has ministered at the shrine for many years. Schmitz joined the Franciscan order on Sept. 14, 1948, one day before the official beginning of Marytown.

The U.S. bishops conference made Marytown the national shrine of Maximilian Kolbe in 2000.

“It made perfect sense. This is his place,” said Schmitz.

Who was St. Maximilian Kolbe? According to Conventual Franciscan Father Stephen McKinley, rector of the shrine and guardian of Marytown, “People now know who he is, but I still run into some who don’t,” McKinley said. “But the name Maximilian is becoming more and more popular. Two of my six altar servers are named Maximilian.”

He believes that Maximilian is becoming better known as the friars tell the stories and people’s lives are touched and transformed.

The man and saint

The best known story of the saint’s life is of his death. On July 28, 1941, in the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz then-Father Maximilian offers to die for Franciszek Gajowniczek who was sentenced to death by starvation as revenge by the guards for a prisoner escaping from their block.

The priest said he gets chills when he thinks about the short dialogue between Kolbe and the Nazi commandant before his death. The commandant asked Kolbe “Who are you?” Kolbe replied, “I’m a Catholic priest.”

“That is for me a statement,” said McKinley.

More personal stories about Kolbe were told during a retreat in Polish on May 22 at Marytown. The speaker was Conventual Franciscan Father Lucjan Krolikowski, who used to play chess with the saint and is one of the last living people who knew him.

“St. Maximilian was a mathematical genius. His professors didn’t want him to enter the order because they didn’t want to waste such a talent,” said Krolikowski.

The 92-year-old explained that the name Maximilian means “greatest” or “highest” and was given to him by his Franciscan community for a reason.

“When he was a boy there were already signs of him being extraordinary,” Krolikowski told retreatants. “As a seminarian he wrote with ink, ‘I want to be a saint,’ and he added with pencil ‘the greatest.’”

Kolbe also founded the Militia of the Immaculata in 1917. This spiritual movement encourages consecration to Mary as a way to renew faith.

All for Mary

In 1934, when Krolikowski entered the Franciscans in Niepokalanow, it was the world’s largest religious community.

“There were over 800 friars living at that time. But despite the number of people, when I walked through the place for the first time, all I heard was silence, prayers and the hum of the printing machines,” said Krolikowski.

During those days the religious magazine “Knight of the Immaculata” created by Kolbe had a monthly circulation of 750,000 in Poland. At one time its circulation reached 1 million. Besides the magazine for adults, Kolbe published a children’s magazine “The Little Knight,” with a monthly circulation of more than 220,000.

“He got the best possible printing machines of his time made in Germany. He believed that we should be giving the best to the Immaculata (Mary) to win the world for her,” said Krolikowski.

In Poland, Kolbe built a hospital, organized a fire department, started a radio station in 1934 and dreamed about a television station and an airport.

Everything he did was for Mary. He even traveled to spread the word of her in countries such as India, China, Egypt, Moroco and Syria.

A retreat for many

The presence of Kolbe is obvious at Marytown. Not only in a statue, four mosaics or the firstclass relics of the saint, but also in the hearts of the Conventual Franciscan friars and the welcome atmosphere they have created there. Visited annually by thousands, Marytown is a shrine of our time (Pope John Paul II once called St. Maximilian, “A saint of our difficult time.”).

“People come for the shrine, for the eucharistic adoration since we have it open 24/7; for overnight retreats and for peace,” said McKinley. “We hear a lot of confessions.”

For Schmitz, Marytown is a pure gift.

Asked why people should come to Marytown, McKinley said, “We live in a noisy world. People run to find fulfillment and contentment. We need to get quiet. I think this place is an oasis of silence in the midst of a noisy world.”

Kolbe at a glance

Patron of: journalists, families, prisoners, the prolife movement, those afflicted with chemical dependency and eating disorders, and media communications.

Born: Jan. 8, 1894, named Raymond Kolbe in the town of Zdunska Wola, Poland.

1907: Raymond and his brother Francis enter the seminary of the Conventual Franciscans.

1917: Father Maximilian establishes the Militia of the Immaculata, a worldwide evangelization movement.

1927: Father Maximilian and his brothers move to Niepokalanow, the “City of the Immaculata.”

1931: Father Maximilian purchases land for a new friary in the poor district of Nagasaki-Hongochi at the base of Mt. Hikosan.

1939: Poland is invaded by Nazi Germany.

1941: Father Maximilian is killed by an injection of lethal acid.

1982: Pope John Paul II, in a ceremony in St. Peter’s square, declares Kolbe a saint, a martyr of charity.