Rare relic of Auschwitz saint on display at St. Ita

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Saturday, January 27, 2018

Saint of Auschwitz welcomed at St. Ita

Conventual Franciscan Friars pray as a rare, first class relic of St. Maximilian Kolbe was installed for permanent display on Jan. 24, 2018 at St. Ita Church. Because he was martyred at Auschwitz, the strands of Kolbe's beard are the only remaining first class relics, and quite rare. Kolbe founded the largest religious house of modern times with 800 members and was also the publisher of the largest magazine in Poland. He's known as the patron saint of prisoners, drug addicts and journalists.
Conventual Franciscan Friars pray as a rare, first class relic of St. Maximilian Kolbe, who volunteered to die in place of another prisoner at the Auschwitz death camp, was installed for permanent display on Jan. 24 at St. Ita Church. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Franciscans Friars pray during the Litany of Saints. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
The choir sings during the service. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Father Bob Cook, pastor of St. Ita, presents the first-class relic of St. Maximilian Kolbe to Conventual Franciscan Father James McCurry for veneration. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
A man venerates the relic of St. Maximilian. The reliquary containing hair of his beard is in the shape of the Franciscan tau cross, which forms a "T." (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Father Bob Cook, pastor, presents the first class relic of St. Maximilian Kolbe to St. Ita's congregation. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Father Cook blesses the congregation with the relic. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Fathers Cook and McCurry confer during the service. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Parishioners sing as a sought-after, first class relic of St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan Friar who volunteered to die in place of another prisoner at the Auschwitz death camp, was installed for permanent display on Jan. 24 at St. Ita Church. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

For Conventual Franciscan Father Robert Cook, pastor of St. Ita Parish, St. Maximilian Kolbe isn’t some far-off legendary figure.

St. Maximilian Kolbe died in Auschwitz on Aug. 14, 1941, after volunteering to take the place of another man who was to be tortured in a room meant to starve people to death. Like Cook, St. Maximilian was a Conventual Franciscan, and Cook has met older friars who knew Kolbe in Poland before he was martyred.

“There’s a closeness there,” Cook said before welcoming a first-class relic of St. Maximilian to St. Ita Church, 5500 N. Broadway, on Jan. 24. “He’s like my older brother in faith.”

The national shrine to St. Maximilian is located at Marytown in Libertyville.

The relic — a bit of hair, enclosed in a reliquary in the shape of a tau cross — is much like the reminders of loved ones many people keep, Cook said. (The tau cross, which forms a loose “T,” is a symbol of the Franciscans.)

“My mother is not a canonized saint, but I’m quite certain she is in heaven,” Cook said, referring to relics being reminders of loved ones. “I still have some of her things, and sometimes I spend time with them to feel closer to her.”

The formal reception of the relic included a rite consecrating the entire parish to Mary, because that is what St. Maximilian would have wanted, Cook said. Conventual Franciscan Father James McCurry, provincial of the order’s Our Lady of Angels Province, which covers the eastern United States, gave a homily about St. Maximilian.

McCurry never met the saint himself, but he was present in St. Peter’s Square for the saint’s canonization in 1982. In fact, he led a pilgrimage of 750 U.S. Catholics to the canonization, and, probably by virtue of that, was selected as one of 20 people to participate in the offertory procession.
He also for many years served as a driver and host for Franciszek Gajowniczek, the man whose life was spared when St. Maximilian took his place, when Gajowniczek visited the United States to speak about St. Maximilian.

According to Gajowniczek and other prisoners McCurry met, St. Maximilian offered an example of goodness and charity even in Auschwitz. Most of the prisoners in his barracks were Polish Catholics, as the Nazi regime had not yet embarked on its plan to exterminate European Jews, but they were all welcomed to the camp by the commandant with a statement that the only way out was through the crematorium. Any Jews among them had the right to live no more than two weeks, the commandant said; Catholic priests could live a month.

But St. Maximilian lived and worked with the other men, sharing what food he had, hearing confessions and advising his fellow prisoners to keep hope and love in their hearts, McCurry said.

When Gajowniczek was among 10 men chosen to die to set an example after one man escaped, he cried out that he had a wife and children, and asked what would become of them. That’s when St. Maximilian stepped forward and identified himself as a priest, volunteering to take his place, McCurry said.

With the other nine, he was stripped of his clothes and locked in an underground bunker without food or water for two weeks. Fellow prisoners said that in the days after they were locked in, the men were heard singing hymns and praying. When the guards opened the bunker two weeks later, St. Maximilian was the only one still alive. He was killed with an injection of carbolic acid.

That’s the part of St. Maximilian’s life story that many American Catholics know. He was called a “martyr of charity” because he died not to avoid denying his faith, but because he insisted on following the words of Jesus, that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, McCurry said.

What some might not know is that St. Maximilian led an exceptional life before that. He saw a vision of Mary in his parish church when he was just 10 years old, and she offered him two crowns: the white one would mean heroic, lifelong purity; the red one would mean heroic martyrdom.
“With the enthusiasm of a 10-year-old, he said, ‘I want both,’” McCurry said.

St. Maximilian went on to found the Militia Immaculatae — the Knights of the Immaculate — while still a student-friar in Rome in 1917. Five years later, after having been ordained, he started the Knights of the Immaculata magazine in Poland to evangelize, bringing people to Jesus through Mary. 

Five years after that, he founded a Franciscan apostolic center near Warsaw called Niepokalanow, the “City of the Immaculata.” The congregation used print media and radio to spread the word that people should love Mary as a mother if they wanted to get closer to Jesus.
Because of his religious prominence, St. Maximilian knew he was likely to be arrested when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. To try to avoid capture a little longer, he asked the congregation’s barber to shave off his long, identifiable beard.

Without that decision, there would be no relics today, McCurry said, as his body was incinerated with those of other prisoners.
In fact, the barber suspected that his superior might be a future saint, so he tried to tuck the clippings away. When St. Maximilian noticed, he chastised the barber for considering such a thing and instructed the barber to throw the clippings into the stove, McCurry said.

The barber, knowing it was summer and the stove was cold, obeyed. When St. Maximilian left the room, he removed the clippings from the stove and stored them in a pickle jar.

Now fragments have been given to churches around the world, when they are requested by the pastor and bishop and when they will be displayed for public veneration.


The particular relic that is now displayed at St. Ita was on the altar at Niepokalanow for Mass on the feast of the Immaculate Conception. A St. Ita parishioner who has family in Poland collected it at the request of Cook.

McCurry said St. Ita parishioners can look to St. Maximilian as an example of the power of goodness.

“He lived in a troubled world, where there was a battle going on between good and evil,” McCurry said. “He chose to be a champion for good in a world where evil seemed to be winning. It looked like the Nazis were winning at Auschwitz. If people need an example, he showed how to never give up. God will always win out. Love is stronger than hate.”


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