Recommended for 5th grade and older
In this lesson, students explore the life of St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest who gave up his life for a stranger in the concentration camp Auschwitz. St. Maximilian Kolbe is the patron saint of the pro-life movement, not only because of his sacrifices in the service of others, but also because of his unfailing persistence in spreading the word of God to people all over the world. Use this lesson in a religion or history class.
After completing this lesson, students should be able to:
Further information and activities
Start the lesson by asking the students what they already know about St. Maximilian Kolbe. Then read the biography below.
No Greater Love: Saint Maximilian Kolbe and Living the Gospel of Life
It takes a lot of courage to stand up for what you believe in—especially when it means that you could lose your life for your beliefs. St. Maximilian Kolbe is a shining example of what it means to be a hero for the culture of life.
Born in 1894 in Zdunska Wola, Poland, St. Maximilian Kolbe was given the name Raymond at his baptism. When Raymond was still a young boy, he had a dream that the Blessed Mother held two crowns before him. One crown was red, representing martyrdom, and the other was white, representing the purity of dedicating one’s life to God through religious vows. When Our Lady asked Raymond which of the two crowns he would choose—martyrdom or religious life—he boldly replied that he wanted both.
Raymond felt that God was calling him to join the Franciscan order and become a priest. As a young boy, he entered a Franciscan junior seminary near his home to attend school and discern whether or not God was truly calling him to religious life.
The Polish army or God’s army
Raymond had two loves: his faith and his country. His father, Julian, was a soldier in the Polish army who died at the hands of his enemies. In school, Raymond dreamed about someday following in his father’s footsteps and helping his beloved country. For school projects, he designed aircraft and developed military strategies. When he turned 15, he decided that he would abandon a religious vocation to join the army.
On the day that he decided to tell his provincial that he was leaving school, his mother came to visit him. She told him that since all of her children had joined religious orders, she planned to do the same. Her visit convinced Raymond to continue his studies to become a priest. He officially joined the Franciscan order when he was 18 and took the name Maximilian Mary.
A soldier for Christ
Even in religious life, Maximilian didn’t abandon the idea of fighting as a soldier. However, he now wanted to be a soldier for Mary and the Church. When studying in Rome, he had the idea to found a group of young people called the Militia of the Immaculata dedicated to fighting freemasonry and the devil. Today, Kolbe’s Militia of the Immaculata—which he started with just six other friars—is a worldwide movement open to all Catholics over the age of seven who wish to consecrate themselves to Mary and fight evil through prayer.
Maximilian was ordained a priest on April 29, 1918, in Rome. As a priest, Fr. Kolbe dedicated his life completely to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Because Our Lady was conceived without the stain of original sin, she is perfectly united to the will of God and wants to bring all of us closer to her Son. Maximilian used Our Lady as his inspiration for his evangelization efforts and as his guide for everything he would do.
In 1922, he returned to Poland and began publishing a Catholic magazine entitled The Knight of the Immaculate. Just a few years later, in 1927, Fr. Kolbe founded a center of evangelization just outside Warsaw called Niepokalanow—the City of the Immaculate. This center was a convent and publishing house dedicated to bringing the world to Jesus through Mary.
The magazine subscription grew to a circulation of over a million. In addition, the friars also published a daily newspaper, The Little Daily, with a circulation of 230,000. It was so successful that they even bought a small airplane to help with distribution. Fr. Kolbe and his friars understood the value of mass media in evangelization. They started a radio station at Niepokalanow and even had plans to build a motion picture studio. Fr. Kolbe wanted to use every type of machinery possible in the service of the Mother of God.
In 1930, Fr. Kolbe and four of his brother friars went on a mission trip to Japan, where they founded another city dedicated to Mary. One month after arriving in Japan, Fr. Kolbe and his brothers published a Japanese version of The Knight of the Immaculate magazine—even though none of the friars spoke Japanese. Two years later, Fr. Kolbe also founded a house of friars in Malabar, India. By 1936, these missionary activities had taken a toll on his health. He fell ill and was forced to return home to Poland.
Strength through suffering
In 1939, World War II began. The Nazis invaded Poland from the west and Russian communists invaded from the east. In the early years of the Nazi occupation, Niepokalanow became a shelter for Jews and Polish refugees. The friars continued to publish the magazine, which quickly became labeled as anti-Nazi.
“The most deadly poison of our times is indifference,” wrote Fr. Kolbe in a letter to his brother Alphonse. “And this happens, although the praise of God should know no limits. Let us strive, therefore, to praise Him to the greatest extent of our powers.”
It wasn’t long before the Nazis shut down Fr. Kolbe’s printing presses. On February 17, 1941, he was taken and imprisoned in Pawiak prison. On May 28, he was transferred to Auschwitz, a Nazi work camp outside Krakow which would later become one of the largest extermination camps of the Holocaust. With little to eat and harsh working conditions, many of the prisoners struggled to stay alive. Miraculously, Fr. Kolbe was sometimes able to share half of his portion of bread with others as well as minister to their spiritual needs.
“Martyr of Charity”
One night, three prisoners escaped from the concentration camp. As a warning to the remaining prisoners, the Nazis ordered the deaths of 10 men from the barracks. Standing out in the yard, the prisoners waited to see which of them would be chosen for death. A man named Franciszek Gajowniczek was one of those chosen by the Nazi officer. He cried out that he had a wife and a family and that his death would leave them alone in the world. Just when all hope seemed lost, the unthinkable happened. Hearing Franciszek’s pitiful plea, Fr. Maximilian stepped out of line and made his way over to the Nazi officer.
“Let me take the place of this man,” he said calmly. “I am a Catholic priest.” Maximilian should have been shot just for speaking, let alone stepping out of the line, but the Nazi officer listened to Fr. Kolbe and agreed to let the two men switch places in the starvation bunker. For days, Maximilian Kolbe buoyed the spirits of the other condemned men in the bunker, hearing their final confessions, singing hymns, and praying with them. After two weeks, the Nazis became impatient and opened the bunker to kill the prisoners who were still alive. Fr. Kolbe was still alive, and as the Nazi officer approached him with a lethal injection, the priest held out his arm to his executioner. He died on August 14, 1941, at the age of 47.
At his canonization, St. John Paul II called St. Maximilian “a martyr for charity.” Unlike the early Christian martyrs, St. Maximilian didn’t just die for his faith in God. He gave his life so that another man might live—just as Christ gave His life so that we might have eternal life. As Jesus tells His apostles at the Last Supper, “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13, NABRE). We are all called to follow in the footsteps of Christ and to give our lives in the service of others. This means dying to our own wants and desires so that God’s will reigns foremost in our lives.
St. Maximilian Kolbe is the patron saint of journalists, families, prisoners, and the pro-life movement.
1. When Our Lady offered Raymond two crowns, which did he choose and why?
Raymond chose both crowns—the crown of purity and the crown of martyrdom. It was in that moment that he realized he wanted to give everything to God.
2. How did God use Maximilian’s military zeal in his later work as a Franciscan?
God used Maximilian’’s natural zeal for military organization to inspire him to found the Militia of the Immaculata when Maximilian was still just in the seminary.
3. Why is total consecration to Mary important for every Christian?
As followers of Christ, our goal is to grow closer to Him. St. Maximilian understood that the easiest way to get to know Christ is through His mother Mary. Because Mary was conceived without original sin, she is perfectly united to God’s will and wants to help us grow closer to her Son if we only ask for her help.
4. What tools did St. Maximilian use to spread the gospel and how can we imitate his example?
St. Maximilian Kolbe used magazines and radio to help spread the message of Christ’s love to all people. He even hoped to start using motion pictures to further educate people about God and the evil of the devil. Even though St. Maximilian did not speak Japanese, he did not let his lack of knowledge keep him from spreading the gospel.
Like St. Maximilian Kolbe, we have a duty to evangelize about the sacredness of all human beings and teach that every single person has value and dignity. Just as St. Maximilian used modern technology to spread the gospel to all corners of the world, we can follow his example and look for every opportunity to share Christ’s love with others.
5. In building a culture of life, we are all called to give our lives for others, just as Christ did for us. What are some ways we can do that in our everyday lives?
We are not all called to experience martyrdom like St. Maximilian Kolbe, but we are called to the service of others. We serve others by standing up for a friend who is being gossiped about, by including everyone in games (even the unpopular kids), or by helping a sibling or parent without complaining. We can build a culture of life through our words as well as through our actions. We must remember that, when we speak, we should use words that uplift others, not tear them down.
Activities for reinforcement
End the lesson with a prayer.
1. Binder, David. “Franciszek Gajowniczek Dead; Priest Died for Him at Auschwitz.” New York Times. March 15, 1995. nytimes.com/1995/03/15/obituaries/franciszek-gajowniczek-dead-priest-died-for-him-at-auschwitz.html.
2. Naedele, Walter F. “Recounting Role in a Sainthood He Came to the Only Church in the Region Named for Father Kolbe, the Priest Who Saved His Life.” Philly.com. December 10, 1990. articles.philly.com/1990-12-10/news/25922811_1_priest-auschwitz-concentration-camp.
3. “St. Maximilian Kolbe.” saints.SQPN.com. May 1, 2010. st.s.sqpn.com/st.-maximilian-kolbe/.
4. “St. Maximilian Kolbe.” Franciscans of the Immaculate. st.maximiliankolbe.com/.
5. Von Huben, Ellen. “9 Things to Know about St. Maximilian Kolbe.” Word on Fire, August 14, 2014. wordonfire.org/resources/blog/9-things-to-know-about-st-maximilian-kolbe/4426/.
6. “Who Is St. Maximilian Kolbe?” National Shrine of St. Maximilian Kolbe. marytown.com.