Kolbe. The saint, who knew business.
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Kolbe. The saint, who knew business.

Rajmund Kolbe OFMConv, who upon entering into the Franciscan order took the names of Maksymilian Maria, was born in 1894 in Zdunska Wola and murdered in Auschwitz (Oswiecim) on August 14, 1941.

He was a Franciscan, a presbyter, a guardian, a missionary, and a saint of the Catholic Church. Kolbe founded the movement of the Militia of the Immaculata. He published a bulletin “Knight of the Immaculata”, founded Radio Niepokalanow station and he was the superior of Niepokalanow monastery which was then home to the largest brotherhood of friars (762 monks).  He was the pioneer and patron of the new catholic media. He was also the first Second World War martyr to be beatified in 1971.

Rajmund Kolbe was born on January 8, 1984 in Zdunska Wola (Russian partition). He was the second son of Juliusz Kolbe and Marianna Dabrowska. Two of his four brothers died in childhood and two others also joined the Franciscan order. Pawel Koble was the first of his ancestors to move to Zdunska Wola from the Czech Republic circa 1840. Rajmund’s mother and father both worked as weavers. Both of his parents were the members of the Third Franciscan Order. Difficult material situation they found themselves in forced the Kolbe family to move to Lodz and then, in 1897 – to Pabianice where it was much easier to find a job. The future saint’s father found work at a factory and his mother initially worked in a shop before becoming a midwife.

In 1902 Rajmund Kolbe received first Holy Communion and he was confirmed in 1907 by bishop Stanislaw Zdzitowiecki. His fate as a future priest was decided on that day. His mother would later recall the story she heard from Rajmund after the ceremony: “For some time I have been urgently asking the Virgin to tell me what shall become of me. When I went to church, I asked Her again. That was when I saw Her. She was holding two crowns – one white and one red. She looked at me with loving eyes and asked me did I want those crowns. The white one meant I shall live a life of chastity and the red one that I shall become a martyr. I told her, that I wished to accept them. She then looked at me tenderly and disappeared.

It was due to the influence of the Franciscan missionaries of Lviv, especially father provincial Peregryn Haczel, that the brothers Rajmund and Franciszek (and a year later, in 1908, Jozef) decided to join the Order. On 1907 Rajmund Kolbe began his studies at the Franciscan minor seminary in Lviv. He became a novice in 1910 and took the name of Maksymilian. After further education the young monk was sent to the International Seraphic College in Rome. He professed his perpetual vows in 1914. Maksymilian Maria Kolbe defended his doctoral dissertation on philosophy in 1916 and another one – on theology – in 1919. The ambitious young scholar was also interested in physics and mathematics. In 1915 he designed his “Eteroplan” – an interstellar ship carried by rockets, very much like the later space ships of the USSR and the USA.

In April 1918 Maksymilian Kolbe was ordained a priest and said his first mass in Rome.

The years spent in Italy opened his eyes to new threats to the Church. He wrote in his diary: “Today I heard a terrible blasphemy against Our Lady” (19 I 1918), “Another blasphemy, della fantasia” (15 II 1918), “Blasphemy outside my window – what a land of blasphemers” (16 II 1918).

In 1917 the freemasons were celebrating 200 years of the existence of their organisation. Celebrations in Rome were connected with the remembrance of the day Giordano Bruno was executed. Participants proclaimed that the final aim of their efforts was to see Satan rule the Vatican. Father Maksymilian’s eyes were fixed on a banner representing a sneeringly reversed canon of catholic depiction of Saint Michael the Archangel where it was him who was vanquished by Lucifer. The freemasons were announcing expressis verbis that: “Satan shall rule the Vatican and pope shall be his servant“. The event had a tremendous effect on Kolbe’s later ministry and organisational work.

In 1919 Father Kolbe returned to Poland which was at the time fighting to preserve its new borders. He became a lecturer on the history of the Church at the Franciscan minor seminary in Cracow. A year later he was transferred to Lviv where he was made the head of the novitiate. Unfortunately, as he came down with tuberculosis, he was forced to leave his role and go to the Tatra Mountains for treatment. He devoted the time he spent there to the development of his idea of a grand catholic association: Militia Immaculatae. A monthly bulletin entitled “Knight of the Immaculata” was to provide intellectual support to the members of the organisation. He began its publication in 1922 in Cracow, and later in Grodno. The bulletin was positively received by catholic readers and its initial circulation of 5000 copies per month rocketed to one million in 1938.

In 1927 Father Maksymilian oversaw the construction of a new monastery in Niepokalanow. In order for the monks to be self-sufficient it consisted of a farm, dairy farm, bakery, and policlinic. He also founded a Franciscan Volunteer Fire Brigade. In time, a rail siding was also constructed within the monastery complex. This was all made possible thanks to the patronage of Prince Jan Drucki-Lubecki. Niepokalanow soon became the headquarters of a catholic press group publishing not only the monthly bulletin, but also a newspaper “Maly Dziennik [Little News]”, which reached 175,000 copies on weekdays and 275,000 copies on Sundays. The bulletin was soon printed in a child-friendly version: “Maly Rycerz Niepokalanej [Little Knight of the Immaculata]” (1933) and “Rycerzyk Niepokalanej [Tiny Knight of the Immaculata]” (1938). Right before the outbreak of the war a new bulletin entitled “Missionary Bulletin Mugenzai no Sono” was published. It gave an account of the Franciscan mission in Nagasaki, Japan. The periodicals of Niepokalanow not only published articles on religion, but also political, social, and cultural topics.

The total number of copies between all periodicals printed at Niepokalanow in 1939 reached 1,500,000. The total number of their readers was estimated at 5 million.

In 1937, in recognition of his contribution to the press, Father Kolbe was chosen to sit on the Board of the Polish Association of Newspapers and Magazines Publishers [Rada Naczelna Polskiego Zwiazku Wydawcow Dziennikow i Czasopism].

Missionary in the Land of the Rising Sun

In 1930 father Kolbe was allowed to leave for Japan on a mission. Between the years of 1931 and 1935 he resided in Nagasaki where he founded a monastery and initiated publication of the Japanese version of the “Knight of the Immaculata”. The “Japanese Niepokalanow” (Mugenzai no Sono, meaning: the Garden of the Immaculata) was constructed not within the traditionally Catholic district of Urakami, but at the side of one of the mountains surrounding the city. It was its location which saved the monastery when on August 9th, 1945 the American atomic bomb exploded over the city centre. The mountain luckily protected the Mugenzai no Sono from destruction.

His ministry in Japan allowed Father Kolbe to get familiar with the so-called local broadcasting which would disperse around the entire country. Fascinated by the possibilities opened up by this new form of communication he decided he should start a radio station once back in Niepokalanow. Unfortunately, the law at the time did not allow for such a venture. Kolbe, therefore, decided to approach the Polish Association of Amateur Radio Operators, and after receiving personal code SP3RN (Radio Niepokalanow) he legalised the existence of a new radio station. The station opened in 1938 with a range allowing for broadcast across the entire country. Unfortunately, due to bureaucracy, before September 1st, 1939 the station was not granted permission to broadcast a daily set of catholic auditions.

Maksymilian Maria Kolbe was also an active writer. He wrote numerous articles published in the magazines printed at Niepokalanow. He also wrote an account of his missionary work in Nagasaki (1937), as well as a number of letters, speeches, lectures, and notes which were all collected and published after his prophesised martyrdom.

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