The story of St. Maximilian Kolbe and the surrender of his life for a fellow prisoner at Auschwitz is well-known. Less known is the friary and town established by him called Niepokalanow.
As a devout son of the Blessed Mother, he founded this priory in order to spread Marian devotion and defend the Catholic faith through modern communications.
A visit to Niepokalanow takes one back in time. There, in the Polish countryside, far removed from the glitzy new storefronts of Warsaw, the broad fields dotted with modest farmhouses recall a time before World War II when the saint's reputation grew.
The story of St. Maximilian's apostolate began with his early seminary years in Rome, when the Catholic Church suffered many brazen attacks from Masons and communists. The saint witnessed many blasphemous displays such as banners declaring that “Satan must reign in the Vatican. The Pope will be his slave.”
Steeled by the blows of anti-Catholic rhetoric, the young seminarian became determined to fight back by organizing a spiritual army that would win souls. On Oct. 16, 1917, in the basement of the seminary, he and six companions quietly met and enrolled themselves in his newly founded Knights of the Immaculata. A powerful Marian movement, the Knights would consist of members who consecrated themselves to Jesus through Mary and worked for the salvation of souls. A significant aspect of the apostolate would be the conversion and sanctification of non-Catholics, especially those who were hostile to the faith.
After ordination to the priesthood in 1918, Father Kolbe began to print the monthly magazine The Knight of the Immaculata. He intended the publication to encourage devotion to the Immaculate Virgin Mary and serve as a source of Catholic apologetics. The publication was an instant success, and in a short time circulation increased from 5,000 copies to more than 50,000.
The Apostolate Flourishes
The great acceptance of the apostolate in the late 1920s led the Conventual Franciscan to found the town of Niepokalanow. In Polish, the name means “City of the Immaculata.” The mission of the Franciscan community founded there was to combine prayer with cheerfulness, poverty with modern technology, and to promote devotion to our Lord and the Blessed Mother through mass media.
The friary at Niepokalanow soon became one of the largest in the world, both in size and activity. It grew to include a seminary, mission house, printing establishment and radio station. With each passing year, the Knights of Mary Immaculata experienced such astonishing success that Father Kolbe had to install the most up-to-date machinery in his printing department. By 1935 the friary added a daily Catholic newspaper, which soon became one of Poland's leading newspapers. Father Kolbe then expanded his apostolic work to include a radio station, which proved to be very fruitful.
It was also during this period that he set out for Japan. In 1930, another “City of the Immaculata” was founded, in Nagasaki. After establishing the priory at Japan, he then sailed to Malabar, India, where he founded a third monastery.
Resisting German Occupation
In 1936, Father Kolbe returned to Poland to serve as the spiritual father and superior of Niepokalanow, as well as to head what was then one of the largest Catholic publishing houses in the world. Shortly before World War II, the priory had included more than 900 friars publishing a monthly magazine and a daily newspaper with a circulation of more than 1 million.
Things took a turn for the worse, however, in September 1939. Germany invaded Poland, and the Franciscan priory was ransacked. Father Kolbe, along with 40 other friars, was arrested and taken to a holding camp. They were released Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception. When Father Kolbe returned to Niepokalanow, he found that his friary had become a refugee camp for thousands of Poles and Jews who had escaped from Nazi persecution.
Father Kolbe soon came under scrutiny by the Gestapo because he allowed his printing press to publish articles critical of the Nazi regime. After refusing German citizenship, he was labeled a “threat” by the Nazis. He seemed aware that his fate was sealed, when he wrote in the December 1940 issue of the Knight of Mary Immaculata:
“No one in the world can change truth; what we can do and should do is to seek it and serve it when it is found. The real conflict is inner conflict. Beyond armies of occupation and the catacombs of concentration camps, there are two irreconcilable enemies in the depth of every soul: good and evil, sin and love. And what use are the victories on the battlefield if we ourselves are defeated in our innermost personal selves?”
On Feb. 17, 1941, Father Kolbe was again arrested, this time on charges of aiding Jews and the Polish underground. Twenty Franciscan brothers offered to go to prison in Father Kolbe's place, but were refused. After being stationed in a prison in Warsaw for three months, he was deported to Auschwitz where he later gave his life for a fellow prisoner.
Visitors to Niepokalanow are struck by the contrast between the humble structures first built by the saint, and the present more modern complex.
After suffering setbacks during the atrocities of the war and the Nazi invasion, this “City of the Immaculata” has since regrouped and today remains a fully functioning monastery.
The friars have maintained the print and radio apostolates, and have pressed on into television as well. On any day of the year, pilgrims can be seen visiting or praying at such sites as the saint's chapel, bedroom and museum.
The faithful come in droves to witness the place where the mission and spirit of the beloved St. Maximilian Kolbe continues to live.
Kevin Wright, author of Catholic Shrines of Western Europe, writes from Bellevue, Washington.