St Maximilian Kolbe

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Franciscan priest and martyr. He is a patron saint of journalists, drug addicts, political prisoners, families, prisoners, and the pro-life movement. Maximilian was born near Lodz in Poland, in 1894, while the country was under Russian rule. His parents were Franciscan tertiaries. He joined the junior seminary in 1907 and entered the Franciscans in 1910. Both his parents also became religious. His father was hanged by the Russians in 1914, aged 43.

Maximilian studied in Rome. In 1919 he returned to Poland, where, in spite of suffering from tuberculosis, he taught in a seminary and set up a Catholic newspaper. He also established a Franciscan community at Niepokalanow which combined a life of prayer, cheerfulness and poverty, with modern technology. They produced a number of weekly and daily publications which had circulations of over 45,000.

During the 1930s he started another community in Nagasaki, Japan, which also produced publications. The monastery he founded survived the atomic bomb on Nagasaki because of its location, and is still thriving today. Kolbe was recalled to Poland in 1936, because of his health problems. By that year there were 762 friars in his community.

When the Nazis invaded, Niepokalanow became a refugee camp, housing more than 4,500 Jewish and Polish people. The newspapers continued, taking a independent line, critical of Hitler's regime.

Maximilian was arrested as a 'journalist, publisher and intellectual'. Together with four companions, he was taken to Auszwitz in May 1941. Maximilian did forced labour, moving logs speeded by kicks and lashes. He continued his ministry, hearing confessions and smuggling in bread and wine for the Eucharist. He was noted for his compassion to those in an even worse state than himself.

One day, he swapped places with a man called Francis Gajnowiczek who was going to be executed. He said: "I am a Catholic priest. I wish to die for that man. I am old. He has a wife and children."

Maximilian was sent to cell 18 with a group to be starved to death. He prayed with them and recited psalms. After two weeks only four were still alive and he was the only one conscious. He was executed with an injection of phenol and died on this day, aged 47.

He was beatified on 1971 and canonised in 1982 by Pope John Paul II, former Archbishop of Krakow, which is near Auschwitz. Francis Gajnowiczek attended the ceremony. Pope John Paul II declared him 'The Patron Saint of Our Difficult Century'.

St Maximilian was very devoted to Our Lady and has been called the Apostle of Consecration to Mary.

He is one of ten 20th-century martyrs from across the world depicted in statues above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey in London.

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