There is no horizon, only an infinity of sky. Thirty miles across the plains west of Warsaw, Poland on Route 30 near the small town of Teresin, a large white basilica looms into sight fronted by a business street of restaurants, busses, and a park-like setting. In 1927 this former farmland became a hive of construction activity as wooden structures were hastily erected into a religious institution regarded as a national wonder. Visitors were amazed by the huge publishing complex, the largest in Poland, its book binding facilities, warehouses, and photo studies. In addition to its chapel, living quarters for the religious, the postulant quarters, the novitiate, the general management, the infirmary, there were workshops for blacksmiths, mechanics, woodworkers, and shoemakers, together with a fire station and a railway depot. It was said that the City of the Immaculata would someday be a “second Warsaw.”
The visionary behind this remarkable institution was a Franciscan priest named Maximilian Kolbe. Born in present-day Ukraine in December 1894, Kolbe at the age of 13 had illegally crossed the Russian border into Poland and to the Franciscan seminary. After professing first vows in 1911, he was sent to Rome where for he lived the next five years studying for the priest hood. Against the backdrop of World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution, and a Rome that was racked by anti-clerical protests in which speakers thundered against the Pope and organized religion, Kolbe and six other Franciscan seminarians created a religious movement that they named the “militia of the Immaculate Heart.” Within a decade, this movement, whose goal was “the sanctification of all mankind under the patronage …of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” led to the establishment of the City of the Immaculata.
The Poland to which Kolbe returned following his ordination to the priesthood in April 1918, had barely come into being. After more than one hundred years of being divided between Germany and Russia, the country had been reconstituted by the Treaty of Versailles, and was swimming in the nationalistic and religious fervor. Marian enthusiasm was at a particular high, and young people flocked to join Kolbe’s militia. In 1922, Kolbe, using a second hand press donated by an American priest, began publishing a newsletter, the Knight of the Immaculate Mother, and soon had over 70,000 readers.
For the next several years Kolbe worked tenaciously to expand his ministry of the press. “He was a born calculator: calculating and comparing, valuing, deciding, combining budgets and estimated costs,” a member of his community recalled. “He was an expert in everything; engines, bicycles, linotypes, radio; he knew what cost little and what cost less and what was expensive; he knew where, how and when it was opportune to buy.”
St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscans, had once praised God by invoking “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon.” Kolbe instead spoke of “Brother Motor” and “Sister Press.” The frail priest (he would lose a lung through tuberculosis) was enamored by what could be accomplished through modern tools of communication. We must flood the world in a deluge of Christian and Marian press,” he proclaimed… “We must wrap the world in printed paper with words of life in order to give it back the joy of living.”
Within a few years, his work had attracted hundreds of new candidates into the Franciscan Order and led to the establishment of the City of the Immaculata on 70 acres of open land west of Warsaw. By 1930 different eight magazines were printed as well as the leading Catholic Polish newspaper. Then almost as quickly as the young, frail priest had come into public prominence, Kolbe was gone.
During the same period in which the young Franciscan was busy creating the City of the Immaculata he also had his eyes on the mission fields of the Arabian Peninsula and the Far East. Seeing Teresin as a prototype for other centers, Kolbe left Poland in 1930 in the company of five lay brothers, and traveled by ship to Nagasaki, Japan. Here he opened a friary that he named the “Garden of the Immaculate,” and within three months began publishing a Japanese-language edition of Knight of the Immaculate Mother, with the hope of winning thousands of converts and building a new cities of Mary. During the next six years, he traveled to South India, and through Eastern Russia seeking locations for additional centers, but none of these dreams were realized. In 1936, he was recalled to Poland by his superiors to resume direction of the City of the Immaculata in Teresin, that by this time had developed into the largest Catholic religious community in the world with over seven-hundred friars and seminarians.
He returned in weakened health, but still buoyantly enthusiastic. A large area was set aside for the construction of a great Basilica of the Immaculata. And as always he sought to apply technology to the service of the Gospel. Within a short time a radio station was established at the City of the Immaculata “The vehicle of the missionary, Kolbe declared, “should be as efficient as the latest model of an airplane,” and an airport was begun at Teresin, and two friars began training as pilots. Fleets of planes in fact soon did fly over Teresin, but they came wearing swastikas, and dropping bombs.
On September 1, 1939, German forces invaded Poland and with armored columns moving rapidly toward Warsaw, Polish military authorities ordered the City of the Immaculata evacuated, and all but Fr. Kolbe and 36 of his friars left the facility. On September 19th, Kolbe and the Franciscans who remained were moved to a series of internment camps were they were held until December and then released. They returned to a Marian city that had been trashed and raided, but whose dormitories over time filled with refugees of many sorts, displaced Germans and Poles, many of them Jewish. The community housed and fed its transient visitors as best they could for over two years until, following the publication of an issue of the Knight of the Immaculate Mother, contrary to German regulations, Fr. Kolbe and four other Franciscans were arrested, tried and sentenced to the concentration camp at Auschwitz, a former Polish military encampment used at this time for housing Polish and Russian prisoners of war.
What took place next was one of the most exemplary acts of Christian charity of this tragic era. In late July 1941, a prisoner was reported to have escaped from cellblock 14 in which Kolbe was housed, and ten other prisoners were sentenced to death by starvation in retaliation. One of these was a forty-year-old Polish sergeant Franciszek Gajowniczek, with a wife and several children, in whose place Fr. Kolbe offered to stand.
The man who had lived his life under the grandest of skies, with seemingly unlimited visions, was confined to a windowless, underground storage room without food or water. It was here that Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, entered that holy city, described by St. John, where there “shall there be no mourning, nor crying, nor pain…”
When after two weeks, Kolbe was found to be still alive, he was put to death with an injection of carbolic acid, and his body burned the following day. Saint Maximilian Maria Kolbe, one of the most fascinating personalities of our time, was canonized as a saint and martyr by Pope John Paul II at St. Peter’s Basilica in 1982, and his feast is celebrated in the Liturgy of the Church on the anniversary of his death, August 14th. The City of the Immaculata, with its imposing Marian Basilica, is among the major pilgrimage sites of Poland.
Larry Mullaly July 2011