Father Bob Cook, pastor of St. Ita Parish in Chicago, holds a first-class relic of St. Maximilian Kolb as it is installed for permanent display Jan. 24 at the parish church. Saint Maximilian Kolbe died in Auschwitz on August 14, 1941, after volunteering to take the place of another man who was to be tortured in a room designed to starve people to death. Father James McCurry, Provincial of Our Lady of the Angels Province of Franciscan Conventuals, looks on. (SNC Photo/Karen Callaway, Chicago Catholic)

CHICAGO (CNS) – For Franciscan Conventual Father Robert Cook, pastor of St. Ita Parish in Chicago, St. Maximilan Kolbe is not a distant legendary figure.

Saint Maximilian Kolbe died in Auschwitz on August 14, 1941, after volunteering to take the place of another man who was to be tortured in a room designed to starve people to death. Like Father Cook, Saint Maximilian was a Conventual Franciscan, and Father Cook met older brothers who knew the priest in Poland before he was martyred.

“There’s a closeness there,” Fr. Cook said before welcoming a first-class relic of St. Maximilian to St. Ita’s Church on Jan. 24. “He is like my older brother in faith.”

The relic, a piece of hair, is encased in a reliquary in the shape of a tau cross – which forms a loose “T” and is a symbol of the Franciscans.

The official reception of the relic included a rite consecrating the entire parish to Mary, for that is what St. Maximilian would have wanted, Fr. Cook said, and a homily by Conventual Franciscan Fr. James McCurry, Provincial of Notre Dame Province. of the Angels of the Order. which covers the eastern United States.

Father McCurry never met St. Maximilian himself, but was present in St. Peter’s Square for his canonization in 1982. In fact, he led a pilgrimage of 750 American Catholics to canonization and, probably under of this, was chosen as one of the 20 people to participate in the procession of the offerings.

He also served for many years as a driver and host for Franciszek Gajowniczek, the man whose life was spared when Saint Maximilian took his place, when Gajowniczek traveled to the United States to speak about Saint Maximilian.

According to Gajowniczek and other prisoners Fr. McCurry met, St. Maximilian provided an example of kindness and charity even in the Auschwitz death camp in Poland.

Most of the prisoners in his barracks were Polish Catholics, as the Nazi regime had not yet embarked on its “final solution” – the plan to exterminate European Jews – but they were all welcomed to the camp by the Commandant with a statement that the only exit was through the crematorium. All the Jews among them had the right not to live more than two weeks, the commander said; Catholic priests could live for a month.

But St. Maximilian lived and worked with the other men, sharing whatever food he had, listening to confessions and advising his fellow inmates to keep hope and love in their hearts, Father McCurry told the Chicago Catholic, the archdiocesan newspaper.

When Gajowniczek was among 10 men chosen to die to set an example after a man escaped, he shouted that he had a wife and children and asked what would become of them. It was then that St. Maximilian came forward and identified himself as a priest, volunteering to take his place, Fr. McCurry said.

Along with the other nine, he was stripped of his clothes and locked in an underground bunker without food or water for two weeks. Fellow prisoners said that in the days after their confinement, the men could be heard singing hymns and praying. When the guards opened the bunker two weeks later, Saint Maximilian was the only one still alive. He was killed by an injection of carbolic acid.

This is the part of St. Maximilian’s life story that many American Catholics know. He was called a “martyr of charity” because he died not to avoid denying his faith, but because he insisted on following the words of Jesus that there is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friends, said Father McCurry.

What some may not know is that Saint Maximilian led an exceptional life before that. He had a vision of Mary in his parish church when he was only 10 years old, and she offered him two crowns: the white would signify heroic and permanent purity; red would mean heroic martyrdom.

“With the enthusiasm of a 10-year-old, he said, ‘I want both,'” Father McCurry said.

Saint Maximilian then founded the Militia Immaculatae – the Knights of the Immaculate – while still a student-brother in Rome in 1917. Five years later, after being ordained, he started the magazine Knight of the Immaculata in Poland to evangelize, bring people to Jesus through Mary.

Five years later, he founded a Franciscan apostolic center near Warsaw called Niepokalanow, the “City of the Immaculate”. The congregation used the print media and radio to get the message across that people should love Mary as a mother if they wanted to come closer to Jesus.

Illinois has the Saint Maximilian Kolbe National Shrine, located at Marytown in Libertyville.

Because of his religious significance, St. Maximilian knew he was likely to be arrested when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. To try and avoid being captured any longer, he asked the barber of the congregation to shave his long identifiable beard.

Without that ruling, there would be no relics today, Father McCurry said, as his body was cremated along with those of other prisoners.

In fact, the barber suspected that his superior might be a future saint, so he tried to put away the clippings. When St. Maximilian noticed it, he rebuked the barber for considering such a thing and ordered the barber to throw the clippings into the stove, Father McCurry said.

The hairdresser, knowing that it was summer and that the stove was cold, obeyed. When Saint Maximilian left the room, he removed the cuttings from the stove and stored them in a pickle jar.

Now fragments have been donated to churches around the world, when requested by the pastor and bishop and when displayed for public veneration.

The particular relic now displayed at St. Ita was on the altar at Niepokalanow for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception Mass. A parishioner of St. Ita who has family in Poland took him in at the request of Father Cook.

Father McCurry said parishioners of St. Ita can look to St. Maximilian as an example of the power of kindness.

“He lived in a troubled world, where there was a battle between good and evil,” the priest said. “He chose to be a champion of good in a world where evil seemed to be winning. It felt like the Nazis were winning at Auschwitz. If people need an example, he showed how to never give up. God will triumph always. Love is stronger than hate.”

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Martin is an editor at Chicago Catholic, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago.