Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Maximillian Kolbe: The Saint of Auschwitz (and the Man Who Changed My Life Forever)

When I was sixteen, growing up on Cape Cod, my mom was the coordinator of the Apostolate Alliance of the Two Hearts (a Catholic organization that promoted devotion to the Sacred Heart and Immaculate Heart).  We just called it the "Alliance" and knew it meant that my mom (and dad) were always having prayer groups, saying the family rosary, and going to daily Mass.  Priests were in and out of our home on a regular basis, and the "headquarters" of the Alliance was in a room above the ice cream shop my family owned and ran.  We would be working a busy shift, run upstairs for another box of sugar cones, and bump into a group of friars praying for the conversion of sinners.  No biggie ;)  My parents had become Third Order Franciscans of the Immaculate when I was about twelve, and truly, I didn't realize how weirdly Catholic we were until a friend came to my house when I was in high school, and pointed out how many images of Jesus, Mary, and the saints we had.  She (lovingly) started referring to my home as the Jesus House.  Ha! 

So it might come to no surprise to anyone who knew us back then, that my mother was somehow involved (perhaps initiated??) a speaker to come from Poland to give a couple of talks about St. Maximillian Kolbe.  St Max was the founder of the Militia of the Immaculata, which promoted evangelization of the faith through consecration to Our Lady.  She was a Third Order of the same Franciscans that he founded, after all.  What WAS surprising was that the speaker was 93 year old Franciszek Gajowniczek...the man whom St. Maximillian Kolbe had saved by taking his place in the concentration camp! 

Of course, when a 93 year old relic comes to town, you don't just put him up at a hotel...oh no!  My mom prepared our home to receive this special man.  Knowing he was older and unable to go up and down stairs easily, my mom had him and his wife stay in their master bedroom on the first floor.  She planned an elaborate polish meal for him and he got misty-eyed as he saw his favorite traditional polish dishes.  My mom even tucked him into bed like a child and kissed him on the cheek! 

When they left the next day, she stripped the bed and saved the sheets, fully believing that they will be relics one day when Mr. Gajowniczek is canonized.  Why would HE be canonized, you might be asking?  Because he spent the 53 years of his life after being saved by St. Max in dedication to him.  When he had returned home at the end of the war, and discovered his two sons had been killed, he was heartbroken.  He didn't know why his life had been spared while theirs had not, and he felt that perhaps it was because the world needed to hear the message of St. Maximillian Kolbe.   

So that became his mission.  He traveled the world to talk about the amazing saint, and the faith and love for God in his own life was palpable.  "The gift of life", he said during his visit, "is what energizes me to travel around the world".  His life was saved...and so he spent it trying to repay the debt.  It makes sense, doesn't it? 

Franciszek Gajowniczek

Something in my life just *clicked* upon his visit.  A lot of things began to happen to me at the same time, and I don't just mean puberty ;)  Earlier that school year, I was able to enter and win a contest, along with 15 other teenagers from around the country, to stay in New York when Pope John Paul II was visiting.  I was chosen to do a tv interview during the time of his visit to Central Park and to make up for me missing that opportunity, I was given tickets to pray the Rosary with Pope John Paul II at St. Patrick's Cathedral.  Ummmm, a smaller-scale event with the Pope vs. a huge outdoor mob scene...yes, please!  The teenage boy who did the tv interview with me, and was also at the rosary, sat on my right and was able to touch the Pope's hand as he passed by.  I grabbed his hands to get all the Pope's cooties, as one does.

After meeting these incredible teens with faith greater than mine, I was truly inspired to find other people like this back at home in Massachusetts.  Shortly after, my mom was invited by a friend to drive out to Franciscan University of Steubenville with her, to visit her daughter who was attending.  My mom asked her friend if my sister and I could come along to see the university, and off we went.  It was a 12-hour drive from the Cape, and honestly, we were going somewhere I had NEVER heard of...Steubenville, Ohio might have well as been the moon.

But we got there, and wow.  Just wow.  The thrice-daily Masses were just beautiful, filled with young adults singing out to the Lord.  The cute college guys wore t-shirts with faces of Pope JP2 on them, had scapulars sticking out from the back of their necks, and miraculous medals hanging in front.  The only other miraculous medals I had seen were those handed out by my mom through the Alliance.  I had never in my life seen a guy or girl around my age wear one.  I was just in love.  With the school, not the Catholic guys, just to be clear.  They did help sell the school though ;)  

I came home from that trip, inspired by seeing the Pope, and meeting Mr. Gajowniczek, and was determined to attend Franciscan Univerity one day.  I immediately gave up chocolate for a year, as a sacrifice prayed to be able to attend FUS.  Although I was highly discouraged from even applying to a small Catholic school in Ohio (my own liberal Catholic high school counselor wanted me to attend an Ivy League school) I was accepted into the Class of 2001, just in the nick of time.  Soon after that, I started dating a guy from home and my close friends started making bad decisions, and I was pulling away from my faith a little.  Normal teenage rebellion.  But I shipped out to Steubenville, only to be so homesick (for previously mentioned boyfriend and friends) and being so far away from home, not knowing a soul.  At the end of freshman year, I begged my mom to let me transfer to a school closer to home.  She did not want me to but said I could, however, she would not help me with the finances at the new school.  The places I wanted to transfer to were all MUCH more expensive than FUS, and I knew I had to return sophomore, year, much to my parent's delight.

Besides being the holiest woman I know, my mom also has a bit of a prophetic side to her.  She gets these "feelings" and they always come true.  Well, before I had even started at FUS, my mom had one of her famous feelings that I was going to study abroad in Austria through Franciscan's program, and meet my husband there.  Yeah right, I thought!  I had a boyfriend, thankyouverymuch.  The memory of that conversation was not even in my thoughts as I prepared to leave for Austria in January 2000 (still very much dating the same boyfriend from home).  I went to Austria, studied four days a week, and traveled three days a week all over Europe.  We saw the most beautiful churches and countrysides, famous landmarks, and I made wonderful friends, including a guy named Phil Martin.  I've written about our love story before, but in summary, I met him, knew I wanted to marry someone just like him, broke up with my boyfriend over the phone, started dating Phil, and still try to date him as often as possible to this day;)  Phil and I were able to visit Poland together, visiting Pope John Paul's homeland and also the cell where St. Maximillian Kolbe was held at Auschwitz.  We were also able to be in a Wednesday Audience of Pope John Paul II on Ash Wednesday, and attend the Easter Vigil Mass in the Vatican that same year.  

A few years later, we were married by a priest who was a family friend and contributor to the Alliance, Fr. James McCurry.  Here's a little snippet of his story, shared when he received the Kolbe Award a few years back:

Father McCurry, during his funny yet profound remarks upon receiving the award, told of his encounter with Pope John Paul II at the canonization of St. Maximilian in 1982. He asked the Holy Father if he would pray that we might all be as consecrated to Mary as St. Maximilian was. 

The Pope did not hear him at first and said, “huh?” 

Speaking more loudly, the question then prompted a smile on the Holy Father’s face. He pointed to Father McCurry and said, “You do that!”  

Taking this as a papal command, Father McCurry did do it as the long-time president of the Militia Immaculata (founded by St. Maximillian Kolbe in 1917).

Fr. James McCurry with PJP2
Nine months later, we were naming our firstborn son John-Paul.  Some more years down the road, we used the middle name Kolbe on another son.  Trust me, Maximillian was tossed in the name pool a bunch of times, but Maximillian Martin is a bit of a mmmmmouthfull :)

The influence that both St. Maximillian Kolbe and Pope John Paul II have had on my life is profound, and it all started with a little visit from a joyful survivor of the Holocaust named Mr. G. made possible by my mom and Fr. McCurry.

 I am so thankful for the timeline of events God allowed to play out in my life, for the gift of faith and the courage to defend it.  This year has been a crazy one, which I don't need to tell you, from the COVID-19 Pandemic to the race riots, to the political upheavals happening across our world, we need to cling to our faith more than ever!  

When Sophia Press asked me to read and review a new graphic novel about the life of St. Maximillian Kolbe, I jumped at the chance!  I read Maximillian Kolbe: The Saint of Aushwitz so quickly and was completely inspired anew to become a saint willing to risk it all for Christ.  What wimps we have all become!  I put myself at the top of that list lately!  Phil and I used to always look around at some of the teenagers and millennials we know (we work at a high school) and ask ourselves "Who is going to fight the war?"  But now, I ask myself, "Who is going to earn eternal life?"  

To read about the way of life of the friars before World War 2, and then during the concentration camp, is really eye-opening into how easy and cushy our lives have been.  I learned that throughout his ministry, St. Maximillian Kolbe suffered from tuberculosis and had to keep going away to focus on his health, but still managed to spread the devotion of Mary all throughout Europe and Japan, and almost made it to India before getting sick again.  This time of the pandemic, in which we lost the opportunity to go to Mass, prayer groups, Adoration hours, has just been a *slight* glimpse into the hard lives our saints have had to endure for centuries.  But they all overcame no matter their circumstances, and we can too!  This book reminded me that we need to speak the truth lovingly, but courageously, as I have had to do recently in my own life.  Just as St. Maximillian saved the life of his fellow prisoner, and boldly died for Christ, we must look to his example.  I want to earn eternal life.  I would like to think I will have the courage to die for Christ.  Right now, that looks like returning to Mass for me, to risk a virus in order to receive Our Lord's Body.  It means not blindly posting or chanting phrases that have become popular in the media without knowing what we are agreeing to. It looks like increasing prayer, renewing our faith life, and going to confession to receive grace for what's to come. If we have ever needed a hero to look up to, it's now, and that hero is St. Maximillian Kolbe.  Just go buy the book, leave it laying around the house, and be amazed at everyone who reads it.  What kid can resist a graphic novel and what adult can resist a true story of life and death?  St. Maximillian Kolbe, pray for us!


  1. Just purchased my book! My son is in the seminary and has a devotion to St. Maximillian Kolbe. Thank you for promoting his life and dedication to Christ.

  2. This is really interesting and I'm so glad you posted about it! In May I read 33 Days to Morning Glory and made my Marian consecration so it is fascinating to read about your parents who really lived out their devotions. Thank you!


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