Father Lucjan Krolikowski, a Conventual Franciscan Friar at the Basilica of St. Stanislaus in Chicopee, Mass., (see related story on the upcoming Oct. 24 issue’s travel page) started his journey to priesthood in Poland in the seminary run by St. Maximilian Kolbe. After a detour to a Soviet concentration camp, he eventually was ordained, had to outrun communists once again, then for decades became a key worker for the “Father Justin Rosary Hour,” which is still the oldest Catholic radio program in the Polish language in the world.

Having celebrated his 91st birthday in September, he remains quite active in ministry at the basilica. Shortly after his birthday, this gentle friar spoke spiritedly about his life and Maximilian Kolbe.

Where did you start to study for the Franciscans?

I was a seminarian at Niepokalanow, Father Kolbe’s monastery. It was the largest in the world, with 700 friars. We were about 130 boys in the seminary, besides the 700 friars.

I was living in his monastery in Niepokalanow three years in the minor seminary for the missionaries. Maximilian Kolbe was himself a missionary, and he wanted us to go all over the world and spread the Gospel.

Tell me how your studies were interrupted.

I made my vows three days before the outbreak of the war in Poland (on Sept. 1, 1939). Father Kolbe was at the ceremony of the vows.

We were invaded from the east and the west by the German Panzers and the Red Army. They wanted to destroy Poland. I was arrested by the Soviets and sent to a Soviet concentration camp in Siberia because they colonized Siberia with prisoners. I was sentenced for 10 years. I didn’t know why I was there. They never told me.

It was providential after the invasion of Russia by Hitler’s army: I was liberated and joined the Polish Army (in exile) and graduated from military artillery school. We were at the foot of the Himalayas in Bukhara. My temporary vows had expired in the forest in the Soviet Union, and I was a layman again.

How did you get back to study for the priesthood?

The Army needed chaplains, so they looked for boys who had some studies for priesthood. I applied. I was sent to Beirut, Lebanon, for the seminary. I had philosophy in Poland and four years of theology in Lebanon. It was not a Franciscan but a Jesuit university.

After theological studies, I had to decide whether I would be under a bishop or Jesuits or Franciscans. St. Maximilian Kolbe pulled me back to the Franciscans! — although I didn’t know he had died yet.

My family didn’t know I was living. They knew I was in the Soviet Union. I had no contact with them. My family was expelled from our house by the Nazis. They didn’t know I was ordained a priest.

Where were you assigned when you were ordained?

After ordination in 1946 I was a chaplain of a huge military hospital. After the war I was sent to east Africa, Tanzania, as a chaplain to the Polish orphans there. (Others were also deported to Siberia). We stayed there three years at the foot of Kilimanjaro. I was 28 and climbed it.

In 1949, when the refugee camps were liquidated, we couldn’t go back to Poland. It was taken over by Stalin’s communist government.

The communists made an effort to get the orphans back to Poland for “humanitarian purposes — they loved children!” But we fought not to give them back to communist control.

With a lady [helping], we took the 146 children to Europe, then had to escape because the communists were on our heels all the time. We brought them to Canada. They were small, from 9 years old up. French-Canadian priests helped place them in schools.

I am still in contact with the orphans. This morning, a call from Ottawa came from one of my orphans; last night from Victoria, British Columbia. We keep in touch and have reunions.

What came after your years with the orphans?

I was made pastor of Our Lady of Czestochowa in Montreal; then I moved to Buffalo [to work] in radio broadcasting to the Polish people in Canada and the United States. I would be there 34 years, finishing at 80 years old.

It was called the “Father Justin Rosary Hour” radio broadcasts. He was the founder. We were all over Canada and the United States on different stations. We covered almost the whole country.

I was a ghostwriter for the broadcasts. I prepared almost all the speeches. We invited cardinals, bishops, high personages who spoke to our people, like Cardinal Krol, Cardinal Wojtyla.

Please share a favorite memory or two of those years.

We had a beautiful chapel with a painting by a famous painter. Cardinal Wojtyla blessed the chapel and spoke to our people.

Then I was celebrating in Montreal our 25th anniversary of coming to Canada, and Cardinal Wojtyla was visiting in Montreal at that time. His secretary told him Father Krolikowski was celebrating the Silver Jubilee with orphans. Cardinal Wojtyla said, “Let’s go to the children.” The secretary said, “It’s 8pm. We’re late for another appointment and have no time to go.” But the cardinal said, “Let’s go see the orphans.” I didn’t know Cardinal Wojtyla was an orphan too. The entire family had died by the time he was age 20.

They came unannounced. The door opened, and I saw a red cassock. He saw me standing by the microphone, and he spoke to the children for seven to 10 minutes. Later, I had a private audience with him when he was pope.

Please share some memories of Maximilian Kolbe with us.

Maximilian Kolbe used to come very often to the seminary. He played chess. He was so brilliant: a genius in math. He would play with 10 seminarians at one time and win every one. But he was humble and gave us a chance to win.

He was a genius. When he applied for the novitiate, there was a committee studying each case. When it came to Raymond — his name from baptism — his professor of math and physics said, “To be a monk would be a waste of time. He is a genius, and they need to send him to the university. He could be another Galileo or Copernicus.” The father provincial said, “Yes, you might be right; he is a genius. But I will tell you, professor, we also have geniuses of the spiritual realm, and we call them saints.”

Sometimes people think of saints as sad. Did he have a sense of humor?

He was a great joker. For instance, I met him after his work in Japan, in Nagasaki. He had a black beard when he came back from Japan, but underneath it was red. So we joked with him, “Father, how come your beard has two colors?”

He said, “When I was in Japan, Nagasaki, one day the brothers from the kitchen came and said, “We have no essence for the tea.” I said, “Don’t worry, just boil the water and then ask me to come. So I put my beard into the water and that part got red.’”

What other qualities did he have then?

He was humble, very humble. Many times when people ask me how I would describe his humility, I say to all, “If you would come to Niepokalanow and say to me, ‘I hear so much about Maximilian Kolbe. Who is he? What does he look like?’ I tell them, ‘I will march in a file in front of you (all the friars) and you guess who could be Maximilian Kolbe.’”

He would be the last to be recognized. He was so self-effacing, so ordinary and humble.

The brothers loved him so much. When he was arrested by the Nazis, 20 brothers applied to replace him, ready to die in his place, and the Nazi colonel said, “Even if it be 1,000 you would not liberate him. He is precious to us.”

Father Kolbe shared our faith through the media. Did it influence you?

The whole country (Poland) used to have his publication. He published the monthly Knight of the Immaculata journal. My parents were getting this monthly. I read it from beginning to end, and he attracted me to the Franciscans.

I knew I had a vocation to the priesthood but didn’t know which congregation to choose. The Salesians? The Jesuits? So St. Maximilian Kolbe, through his monthly, influenced me.

You surely saw that media influence later in your own radio work. What about in the seminary?

The printery was not far from our seminary. He put all the money into buying machines to print the Knight of the Immaculata. The machine was marvelous. On one side they put the ball of paper; it printed in two colors, bent, cut and stitched, and it came out the other side with the address of the reader on it. All in the same machine. The brothers just put them in sacks and sent them to the railway station.

He also printed a daily paper so cheaply. It cost only five cents for paper, printing and shipping, so all the newspapers in Poland suffered because of Maximilian Kolbe! His was Catholic. They couldn’t compete. They had people in the railroad business stop the shipping one or two days. So when the paper came to the people the news was old. People complained.

Maximilian Kolbe didn’t complain. [Instead] he wanted to build an airport in our monastery — we had lots of land — and he sent two brothers to be pilots. They were supposed to bring the newspaper to different places in Poland. They did become pilots, but the war started and the papers were never delivered that way.

Father Kolbe must have influenced you and all the others in all kinds of indirect ways.

Once when I was a boy — 16, 17, 18 — I was looking at the Franciscan brothers who were putting tar on the roof, boiling the tar in big containers. I read about martyrs, some boiled in water or tar. Because of Maximilian Kolbe — we already recognized him as a saint — I asked myself, Could I be ready to die for Christ being boiled in this tar? Today I know the answer. If I would be sentenced to martyrdom God would give me the strength and grace. So I don’t have to think about it.

As Christians, we are all martyrs, but our martyrdom is spread out. With disease, sickness and pain, suffering is spread all over life. My eyes are not so good as they were. I walk a little wobbly. Small things, but suffering. So martyrdom is spread out.

I look at the life of the person; especially now Christians are persecuted in this age. Those liberals took the crosses and the Bible out of the schools. Judges got rid of the Ten Commandments. So it’s suffering.

Did this quiet kind of suffering touch Father Kolbe?

He had to be bright to manage everything — 700 brothers, 130 seminarians, all the printings.

His monastery was so expanded and complicated; printing so many publications.

What Maximilian Kolbe did sometimes — you judge it’s not in the ability of a man to do it. He has to be helped by God. It’s like a miracle.

Our superiors were afraid that, when he died, the monastery would collapse because it was too complicated to be run by one person. The father general said, “Let Father Maximilian Kolbe answer these accusations.” Father Kolbe stood up, put his hands like this [Father Krolikowski demonstrates, holding his arms down, with wrists crossed as if bound] and said nothing. Why? He believed in the providence of God.

Later I heard the father general said “I felt like Pilate before Christ.”

With all you’ve gone through, you still were able to write yourself. And how do you serve at the basilica?

I am still useful preaching, celebrating Mass, hearing confessions. There are 400 children in the parish school, and each month there are confessions for them. I wrote two books in Polish. The third is a prayer book.

The first was about the children. (Stolen Childhood: A Saga of Polish War Children in English translation is available through Amazon.) Second was my memoirs, now being translated into English in London. I am still sitting on a suitcase!

Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.