Friday, July 3, 2009


This is the substance of a speech I gave this week to a local organization. It has a lesson for everybody.

To many people, the lives of the saints is something you learn in Catholic School. I'm not Catholic, but I was inspired by this story, which has a local angle to it.

Here in Libertyville, Illinois, driving down Highway 176 past St. Mary's of the Lake Seminary, one passes by Marytown. Most people pass it without a second thought, unaware of what may be found inside. About two years ago, I was privileged to take a tour when Marytown sponsored a Chamber of Commerce event. I was pleasantly surprised.

Marytown is operated by the Conventual Franciscan Friars and is devoted to the martyrdom of St. Maximilian Kolbe. To many of us, we think of martyrdom as something that ended in the Middle Ages.

St. Maximilian Kolbe was born Raymond Kolbe in Poland in 1894. As a teen, he entered the Franciscan Order and became a priest in 1918.

He was an organizer, and he set up an evangelization center near Warsaw called Niepokalanow--City of Immaculate. Kolbe's goal was to set one up on every continent. Today, Marytown, established in 1948, is America's City of the Immaculate. Others are in Poland, Brazil, India, Italy, Japan and the Philippines.

Father Kolbe proved to be charismatic and successful, and by 1939, Warsaw's City of Immaculate had 900 Franciscan friars, the largest Catholic religious house in the world.

He was the consummate mass media guy. He operated a daily newspaper with 230,000 circulation and a monthly magazine with over 1 million circulation. He even operated a radio station.

Unfortunately, his operation was greatly curtailed when the German Nazis invaded Poland in September, 1939, the start of World War II. A humanitarian, Father Kolbe gave shelter to 3,000 Polish refugees. Soon after the invasion, Father Kolbe and a number of other friars were arrested for their evangelization activities. While they were gone, the Nazis stripped Niepokalanow of everything of value. Eventually Kolbe and the others were released but ordered not to publish. He convinced them to allow a final printing of the magazine in 1940.

Apparently. that was the last straw for the Nazis, and they arrested Father Kolbe again in early 1941 and sent him to Auschwitz. Several months later a prisoner escaped from the barracks. The Nazis had a policy that if someone escaped, they would execute 10 prisoners. They randomly selected 10 condemned men and lined them up with the intention of starving them to death in isolation. One of the 10, Polish Sergeant Francis Gajowniczek cried out in agony over the fate of his children without a father.

To everyone's surprise, Father Kolbe stepped forward to confront the Nazi commandant. He pointed at Sgt. Gajowniczek and said "I'm a Catholic priest. I would like to take his place because he has a wife and children." The astonished commandant hesitated a moment and they allowed Sgt. Gajowniczek to return to the other men, and Father Kolbe took his place.

Father Kolbe and the other 9 men were sent to a starvation chamber where they remained for 14 days, as the good priest led them in prayer and hymns. After 14 days, only four men, including Father Kolbe, were still alive. The impatient captors summarily executed them on August 14th--now St. Maximilian's Feast Day.

Sgt. Gajowniczek survived the war and devoted his life to the Church, traveling the world, speaking of the good deeds of the man who saved his life. Those deeds were brought to the attention of the Vatican, and in 1982, Pope John Paul II canonized Father Kolbe, describing his as a "Martyr of Charity" and "Patron Saint of our Difficult Century." Attending the ceremony was the tearful 90 year old Francis Gajowniczek.

Those events are brought to life at the museum honoring St. Maximilian Kolbe at Marytown in Libertyville. It is open to the public.

Given that there are still people amongst us who cynically deny that the Holocaust took place, although it is one of the most well documented events in history, visiting this museum should be a high priority for families and schools. We see dictators and religious fanatics in the news everyday who would perpetuate those evils, and are held in check by the military and moral might of the U.S. and the other democracies. If we don't constantly educate ourselves and our children about the evils in the world, we may be doomed to repeat them.



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