Niepokalanów is proud to have been founded by St. Maximilian Mary Kolbe, a martyr of charity from the concetration camp in Auschwitz.
Raymund Kolbe was born in Zduńska Wola on 8 January 1894, the second son of Julius Kolbe and Maria Dabrowska. He had four brothers, Francis, Joseph, Walenty (who lived a year) and Andrew (who lived four years).
In 1907, Kolbe and his elder brother Francis decided to join the Conventual Franciscans in Lwów. In 1910, Kolbe was allowed to enter the novitiate, where he was given the religious name Maximilian. He professed his first vows in 1911, and final vows in 1914, in Rome, adopting the additional name of Maria, to show his devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Kolbe was sent to Kraków in 1912, and later that same year to the house of studies of the Order in Rome, where he studied philosophy, theology, mathematics and physics. He earned a doctorate in philosophy in 1915 at the Pontifical Gregorian University, and a doctorate in theology in 1919 at the Pontifical University of St. Bonaventure. During his time as a student, he witnessed vehement demonstrations against Popes St. Pius X and Benedict XV in Rome during an anniversary celebration by the Freemasons. This event inspired Kolbe to organize the Militia of the Immaculate on the 16 October 1917.
Kolbe was ordained a priest on the 28 April 1918. In 1919, he returned to the newly independent Poland, where he was very active in promoting the veneration of the Immaculate Virgin Mary, founding and supervising the monastery of Niepokalanów near Warsaw, a seminary, a radio station, and several other organizations and publications. In Cracow he initiated issuing the monthly "Rycerz Niepokalanej" ("The Knights of the Immaculate") in 1922, and in 1927 founded a Conventual Franciscan monastery at Niepokalanow, which became a major publishing centre. Kolbe left Poland for Japan in 1930, spending six years there. The monastery at Niepokalanow began in his absence to publish the daily newspaper, "Mały Dziennik", which became Poland's top-seller.
Between 1930 and 1936, Kolbe undertook a series of missions to Japan, where he founded a monastery at the outskirts of Nagasaki, a Japanese paper, and a seminary.
After the outbreak of World War II, which started with the invasion of his nation by Nazi Germany, Kolbe provided shelter to refugees from Greater Poland, including 2,000 Jews whom he hid from Nazi persecution in his friary in Niepokalanów. On 17 February 1941, he was arrested by the German Gestapo and imprisoned in the Pawiak prison. On 28 May, he was transferred to Auschwitz as prisoner no. 16670.
At the end of July 1941, three prisoners disappeared from the camp, prompting SS-Hauptsturmführer Karl Fritzsch, the deputy camp commander, to pick 10 men to be starved to death in an underground bunker in order to deter further escape attempts. When one of the selected men, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out, "My wife! My children!", Kolbe volunteered to take his place.
In his prison cell, Kolbe sang hymns with the prisoners. He led the other condemned men in song and prayer and encouraged them by telling them they would soon be with Mary in Heaven. Each time the guards checked on him, he was standing or kneeling in the middle of the cell and looking calmly at those who entered. After two weeks of dehydration and starvation, only Kolbe remained alive. The guards wanted the bunker emptied and they gave Kolbe a lethal injection of carbolic acid. Some who were present at the injection say that he raised his left arm and calmly waited for the injection. His remains were cremated on 15 August, the feast day of the Assumption of Mary.
Kolbe was beatified as a Confessor of the Faith by Pope Paul VI on 17 October 1971 and canonized as a martyr by Pope John Paul II on 10 October 1982, with Franciszek Gajowniczek in attendance. Upon canonization, the Pope declared St. Maximilian Kolbe not a confessor, but a martyr.