Conventual Franciscan Father Lucjan Krolikowski, 96, was among those present in Rome on Oct. 10, 1982, when Pope John Paul II canonized his fellow Pole, Maximilian Kolbe (1894-1941), who was murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz in place of a fellow prisoner.
Today, Father Krolikowski lives in a Catholic hospice facility for priests and religious in Connecticut; he is one of a few left alive who not only knew St. Maximilian Kolbe, but also lived in community with him.
Father Krolikowski was born in Poland in 1919. In 1934, he joined the Franciscan minor seminary in Niepokalanow, part of a thriving community founded by St. Maximilian Kolbe. He lived with the saint for three years, before being taken prisoner by invading Soviet troops at the outbreak of World War II.
After the war, he was ordained a priest. He emigrated to Canada with 150 Polish orphans whose parents died in the Soviet gulags, serving as their foster parent.
He is the author of numerous books, including his 2012 memoir, A Franciscan Odyssey. He recently spoke to the Register.
What led you to join the Franciscan community at Niepokalanow?
I grew up in a Catholic home with parents who were very simple, but saintly. My father was a baker; my mother worked in a grocery store. I was an avid reader of Maly Dziennik, the daily newspaper of Niepokalanow; Father Maximilian was a contributor. I read it from cover to cover. From a young age, I wanted to be a priest like Maximilian Kolbe.
My uncle, who was also a Franciscan priest, helped me secure a place in the minor seminary at Niepokalanow.
What memories do you have of Niepokalanow and St. Maximilian Kolbe?
Niepokalanow was the largest monastery in the world. It was like Cluny in the Middle Ages. We had 800 brothers, several priests and 130 seminarians. The main purpose of the community was printing Catholic literature, such as our monthly magazine, The Knights of the Immaculate. We wanted to teach people the Catholic faith and how to be holy.
Father Maximilian Kolbe directed the apostolate and was the heart and soul of the community.
I’ve met a few saintly people in my life, but Father Maximilian Kolbe was the most saintly, in my estimation. He had an impact on you; you wanted to imitate him.
Father Maximilian took it upon himself to visit every section of the monastery. I was a young man of 16, 17, 18; he came to see me and my fellow seminarians many times. He wanted us to be missionaries like him and go to Japan [where St. Maximilian Kolbe founded a monastery] or anywhere else in the world to spread the Gospel. He would speak to us in his soft voice, as he had tuberculosis in one lung.
Father Maximilian planned to use airplanes to distribute our literature all over the world, but, unfortunately, his work was interrupted by the Second World War and his incarceration.
St. Maximilian Kolbe also started a radio network.
Yes. He wanted to use it to broadcast into the Soviet Union [the message] that we are all brothers and sisters and should not be enemies. We are the children of God, and he is our Father. Our parents are transmitters of life, but life itself comes from God.
For 32 years, I broadcast a Catholic radio program out of Buffalo, N.Y. I spoke in Polish to Poles living in the U.S. and Canada. I was following Father Maximilian’s example.
How did Father Maximilian’s arrest affect the community?
They were devastated. The brothers loved Maximilian Kolbe so much they wanted to give up their own lives for his release. But the Gestapo told our friars and fathers that even if we sent 20 or 30 men to take his place, they would not release Maximilian Kolbe. He was too valuable. Besides, they were angry with him because our publications carried caricatures of Hitler.
Why were you arrested?
I don’t know. I had just finished philosophy and was taking my first theology class when I was arrested in 1940. I guess the Soviets wanted to liquidate all those who could influence or direct the nation in the future. It’s well known that Stalin ordered the murder of 10,000 Polish officers at Katyn Forest and blamed the Germans.
The war was devastating to Poland. Both the Gestapo and the NKVD [Russian secret police] arrested prominent people and either killed them or sent them to concentration camps. I was sent to Siberia. Maximilian Kolbe was taken by the Gestapo and sent to Auschwitz. Only a handful of brothers were allowed to remain at our monastery, and the Russians took our printing equipment.
When I reached the camp, my job was to cut down trees. Our brigades worked 13 or 14 hours a day, seven days a week. It was particularly intense when the Germans attacked the Soviet Union. I was actually in one of the more lenient camps, although we were constantly hungry, only given a piece of bread here and there. We were never given any meat, fruits or vegetables. We were never given proper clothes or hot water either.
But, as the war with the Germans progressed, the Soviet Union needed soldiers. I was trained to fire artillery and wound up in the Middle East. After the war, I was afraid to go back to Poland, as it was controlled by the communists. I had been ordained a priest in Beirut in 1946, and I was afraid they’d kill me. My mother in Poland never had the chance to see me as a priest. Only after the collapse of communism did I return.
What was your reaction when you learned of Maximilian Kolbe’s death?
I was proud that he gave his life for someone he didn’t know. And when he was canonized, I was very glad, as I consider myself his spiritual son.
You’ll soon celebrate 70 years in the priesthood. Any thoughts?
I chose Maximilian Kolbe’s life. I’d be happy to do it all over again.
Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California.