Roger That! Did You Know That St. Maximilian Kolbe Is the Patron of Amateur Radio Operations?
SaintMaxNet.org was started by two ham-radio operators.
Eight years ago, amateur radio enthusiast and ham-radio operator Bill LaMay wondered who might be the patron saint of amateur radio. He began searching the internet for some answer since the field of amateur radio was rather a new one, only a little more than a century old.
It was not until 1895 that Guglielmo Marconi was able to transmit a radio signal a mere 1.5 miles. Then, radio transmission grew slowly. Thus it was likely that a patron saint would have to be a more recently canonized one. To LaMay’s surprise, the saint whose name came up in his searches was St. Maximilian Kolbe. Although not an official patronage given by the Church at this time, ham-radio enthusiasts find ample reason for the patronage because St. Maximilian Kolbe looked into such radio communication to spread his messages and mission promoting devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
During his search, LaMay came across another ham station — at SaintMaxNet.org — started by two ham-radio operators in 1998, when they also learned about St. Maximillian having an early radio license to experiment with broadcasting. The founders, Dr. Ted Figlock in Massachusetts and Lloyd Roach in Bedford, Pennsylvania, decided that they wanted to get the saint’s story out while sharing aspects of the Catholic faith.
Their founding of St. Maximilian Kolbe Radio Net began in 1997, when Roach came across Figlock’s band with its obviously religious-reference call letters that included “JMJ,” and, as ham operators do, they had a conversation. Roach mentioned he was in a new parish named St. Maximilian Kolbe but did not know much about the saint except that he was a martyr at the hands of the Nazis in Auschwitz. Their search then turned up information that this saint who was devoted to Mary Immaculate also had a connection to amateur radio. Roach told Figlock, “We should start a station to celebrate the life of St. Maximilian Kolbe.” By 1998, they did, launching the ham station they named St. Maximilian Kolbe Net. Roach emphasized, “We believe this is the only saint in the history of amateur radio — it’s so extremely unique.”
Father Kolbe Explores Radio
Once Father Kolbe returned from the friars’ evangelization center in Japan back to Poland and Niepokalanów, the “City of the Immaculata,” in 1938, he saw his Knight of the Immaculata magazine circulation reach 1 million copies. To better “‘win the world for Christ through the Immaculata,” the friars utilized the most modern techniques,” according to the Militia of the Immaculate National Center in Peoria, Illinois. Among other ways, “St. Maximilian used shortwave radio …”
“He wanted to do this to evangelize,” Roach said.
At the time, those who wanted to have a radio station had to file for an experimental license, he explained, citing Claude Foster’s book Mary’s Knight, which details how the future saint received permission to operate a shortwave radio station that was licensed on Sept. 9, 1938, as SP3RN. The “SP” was the designation for all Polish stations, and Kolbe’s choice of “call” was “RN” for “Radio Niepokalanów.” When Father Kolbe got the construction permit for the radio station, he said: “Children, do you realize what this will mean for our outreach? Soon, daily, we’ll be able to reach thousands of our countrymen over the airways. … Now with radio, we should win even more members to the Militia of the Immaculata.”
By Oct. 26, 1938, he began to construct the station in one of the buildings at the monastery. “Like true hams, the friars built and installed their own gear,” explained Roach, who also wrote on the St. Maximilian Kolbe Net website that he is impressed the saint got the best equipment he could, even early-vacuum tube condenser microphones — “always the best for Mary!”
LaMay’s own involvement with the new ham station spreading word about the saint led him to research and write a book, The Life of St. Maximillian Kolbe, the Apostle of Mass Communications. In it, he explained, “It’s no surprise that Father Kolbe said, ‘If Jesus or St. Francis were alive now, they’d use modern technology to reach the people.’ He saw state-of-the-art technology as a means to spread his message about the Blessed Mother and bring the Gospel of Christ to a larger audience.”
LaMay discovered that Father Kolbe became acquainted with local amateur radio while he was at the friars’ monastery in Japan. His application for the amateur radio station was rejected at first, but then his persistence paid off.
LaMay details how Father Kolbe also sent another friar, Brother Manswet Marczewski, to take a radio course with the Warsaw amateur radio club.
When St. Maximillian began construction of the station in October 1938, he told all the friars, “Remember, the purpose of every effort is to disseminate the faith by the written word, the spoken word, and perhaps someday through producing films.”
Dec. 8, 1938, on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, the switch was flipped, and Father Kolbe transmitted this message found in his writings: “This station [SP3RN] can be found on your receivers outside the Polish amateur radio band 41.4m, between 41.1 and 41.4m. ... Allegedly there are 50,000 amateur radio operators. Some will listen out of curiosity, others out of sadness.”
In 1939 he wrote: “The Radio Niepokalanów station worked on the day of Immaculate Conception and the Sunday after, based on oral permission. … We had to suspend transmissions until a written license is issued. However, our radio station can be rather of an amateur type.” This wonderful new means of reaching more people with his Marian messages would not continue for long.
In 1939, the Nazis arrested Father Kolbe, clamped down on his publications, and prohibited SP3RN from broadcasting again.
His Inspiration Today
But St. Maximilian Kolbe Radio Net keeps that radio legacy alive.
And that’s not all.
As LaMay said, “My own devotion to St. Maximilian Kolbe has grown.” Not only has he written a book on the saint, spoken about him in his parish and beyond, “I give the books out to anybody who would like the book,” he said. “It’s more of a ministry,” as he tells people “if they buy the book, I donate the money to the pastor there.”
Explaining how amateur radio operators talk about many things, such as hobbies and interests, LaMay said he talks “about my [ham] station being dedicated to St. Maximilian Kolbe and mention I wrote a book about him.” He brings the saint up “anytime I can see an opportunity to mention that and talk about my faith.”
Through his efforts, LaMay has found the unofficial patron of amateur radio operators not only getting better known but also having a spiritual influence on people.
“A lady had a son-in-law away from the Church for 30 years who decided to come back. Going through the process, she gave him one of my books as a confirmation gift. Reading through it, he decided on ‘Kolbe’ for his confirmation name,” LaMay recalled. “And a couple had their child baptized, and they chose the name Kolbe.” With joy, a bit of surprise and expectation, he added, “I don’t know where this is going to lead!”
From his perspective, Roach has seen St. Maximilian Kolbe Radio Net lead to people coming across the station and listening in. About 130 regulars tune in weekly on one of its three different frequencies and broadcast times (as listed on the website). He said among them are priests and deacons. People as far as Puerto Rico, Canada, Poland, England and France tune in. There are some non-Catholic members and a Jewish member who is interested because his relatives were imprisoned in Auschwitz. Members have gotten together for a pilgrimage to shrines such as Our Lady of Czestochowa in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. On their travels, they stop at churches named after the saint and take photos by his statues and paintings to share. As the station promotes “St. Max and his mission to promote the Blessed Mother,” Roach explained, “this has become an international apostolate.”
Indeed, this new ham-radio station is following in the footsteps and inspiration of the saint himself.
As Roach assessed, “I believe that SP3RN exemplified both in reality and spirit the true meaning of amateur radio.”