The second son of pious parents, St. Maximilian Kolbe was born on 8 January 1894 at Zdunska Wola in Poland, which at that time was under Russian occupation. In Baptism he received the name of Raymond.
Seriousness and recollection marked his nature even as a child. One day, while correcting him, his mother chided him saying, “Son, I don’t know what is going to become of you!” This comment so impressed itself upon him that Raymond turned to Our Lady in prayer asking her the same question. The Virgin Mary appeared to him and presented him with two crowns, one of white roses, the other of red ones. She asked him if he were willing to accept either of them, explaining that the white one symbolised a life of perfect chastity and the red that he would die a martyr. The boy joyfully replied that he would accept both.
For the rest of his life, Raymond preserved a strong and tender devotion for the Blessed Virgin who, time and time again, was to prove his unfailing intercessor and constant protector. His confidence in Our Lady was total!
Raymond Kolbe enrolled in the Franciscan minor seminary at Lwów in 1907 where he received the religious name of Maximilian. He professed his final vows in 1914 in Rome, at which time he adopted the additional name of Maria in honour of his devotion to the Blessed Virgin, whom he invoked under the title of “the Immaculata.”
Ordained in 1918, he returned to Poland the following year with doctorates in Theology and Philosophy, but seriously ill with tuberculosis. His lectures and conversations during his year and a half in the sanatorium of Zakopane, where he was sent for his own recovery from the brink of death, became the catalyst for a number of conversions.
Friar Maximilian was an avid defender of Holy Mother Church and of the Holy Father. While still a seminarian in Rome, he organised the Militia of the Immaculata – a spiritual army explicitly founded to combat Communism and Freemasonry, which were taking hold in Russia and Europe, to work for the conversion of sinners and the enemies of the Catholic Church through the intercession of the Virgin Mary.
He boldly launched into publishing as a means of apostolate and was soon running one of the largest publishing houses in the entire world that produced a daily newspaper, a monthly magazine, a calendar, and books on various topics, all printed in several languages. Radio was likewise utilised both as a means of evangelisation and to speak out against the growing atrocities of the Nazi regime.
In 1927 Maximilian Kolbe founded Niepokalanów, the “City of the Immaculata” where he fulfilled the office of superior until 1930. The next six years he spent as a missionary in Japan where he taught philosophy in the major seminary. There he also founded a second “City of the Immaculata” which became one of the great missionary centres in Japan.
From 1936 until his death, he again served as superior in Niepokalanów, Poland. By 1939 the religious community there consisted of 762 friars and presented a considerable moral force in Poland on the very eve of the Second World War.
Maximilian Kolbe was arrested by the German Gestapo on 17 February 1941. He was transferred to the Auschwitz concentration camp three months later.
At the end of July, when three prisoners disappeared, ten men were picked to be starved to death in punishment and as a warning to anyone else who might attempt an escape. Kolbe volunteered to take the place of one of the men who was a young husband and father.
While awaiting death, Maximilian helped prepare the souls of the condemned men and encouraged them by constant reminders that they would soon be in heaven.