Updated: Aug 19, 2020
Saint Maximilian Kolbe was born Rajmund (Raymond) Kolbe on January 8, 1894 in a small town in what was at the time the Kingdom of Poland. The kingdom of Poland was at the time under the Czar of Russia, and in an effort to stamp out Catholicism had ordered the majority of the convents and monastaries closed (his mother had originally desired to be a nun but was unable to do so due to the closure of most convents). His father was ethnically German, his mother Polish and young Rajmund was born into an extremely poor family. The family lived in a single room cottage and would work late into the night as weavers.
Shortly after his birth and seeing his family expand, Rajmund's father moved the family to a larger town - Pabianice. Here the family was able to work better paying jobs, with his mother becoming a midwife despite very little training.
Though materially poor, the family remained steadfast in their dedication to the Catholic faith, with a small shrine to Mary in the corner of the cottage. In his very early years, Rajmund was very troublesome. Once he stole an egg from a neighbor's hen house, and when caught replied with
"Saint Francis loved his pets, that is why I wanted a pet hen of my own"
1906, a singular event changed him forever. His mother noticed him spending more and more time behind the curtain at the shrine and eventually confronted him about it suspecting more tricks. Sheepishly, he relayed that he had been visited by the Virgin Mary at the shrine and described the event :
That night I asked the Mother of God what was to become of me. Then she came to me holding two crowns, one white, the other red. She asked me if I was willing to accept either of these crowns. The white one meant that I should persevere in purity and the red that I should become a martyr. I said that I would accept them both.
One day while picking up medicine for his family at the near by pharmacist's office, he was able to recite several of the medicines in Latin, piquing the interest of the pharmacist. When asked how he knew Latin, young Rajmund explained that his mother was a midwife and that he spent many hours at the local church studying with the local priest. He informed the pharmacist he hoped to be a great priest one day,. Understanding the family had very very little money to their name, the pharmacist offered to tutor him in Latin and Math for free, believing that Rajmudn would grow to be a great priest.
In 1907, Francisician Monks from the Austrian quarter in Poland visited and informed them a new Seminary would be opened soon offering free education to those who could pass the entrance exam. Because of his tutoring, Rajmund was able to take and pass the exam and soon found himself and his elder brother enrolled at the Conventual Franciscan minor seminary in Lwow. 1910, he formally entered the novitate, taking the Christian name of Maximilian Kolbe (Maxmilian for both the saint sharing the same name as well as an emporer of Austria). in 1911, when it came time to take his first vows, he confided in his brother that he wished to become an engineer. On their walk to the office to inform the Superior, they were surprised by their mother who had travelled to inform them their younger brother would soon be attending. Once he had heard this, he turned to his brother and explained he should forget him ever doubting becoming a priest.
He was soon sent to Rome for further studies. While attending the Pontifical University of St Bonaventure, he and six other friars formed the Militia Immaculata a group dedicated to the total consecration of Mary. In 1918 he was formally ordained as a priest and in July of 1919 he left Rome to return to the newly indpendent Poland.
While teaching at the Krakow seminary, Maxmilian fell ill with tuberculosis that would haunt him the rest of his life. It got so bad in 1922 that he was forced to live in the mountains for the dry air for two years. It was on this retreat that he came up with the idea of the Knight of the Immaculata - a paper dedicated to the Immaculate Heart and Mary. Thought he had to beg other priests and nuns for financial support when starting the paper, it rapidly took off in popularity. He issued the very first copy of the Knight Immaculata on January 22, 1922.