He is a man of myth and legend and he still walks among us.
On the verge of celebrating his 100th birthday as well as his 80th jubilee as a Franciscan Friar (both in 2019), Fr. Lucjan Krolikowski is literally a window into the past, specifically the World War II era of the last century. He is also one of last living Friars to have lived and worked with St. Maximilian Kolbe in war-torn Poland.
Inspired by the work of St. Maximilian, Fr. Lucjan entered the seminary in Niepokalanów, Poland in 1934 at the age of 15 and began an amazing journey of service, sacrifice, persecution and heroism that would have made St. Maximilian proud.
“I grew up in a Catholic home with parents who were very simple, but saintly, said Fr. Lucjan during a 2015 interview with the National Catholic Register. “My father was a baker; my mother worked in a grocery store. I was an avid reader of Maly Dziennik, the daily newspaper of Niepokalanów; Father Maximilian was a contributor. I read it from cover to cover. From a young age, I wanted to be a priest like Maximilian Kolbe.”
When Fr. Lucjan entered Niepokalanów it was a thriving seminary and monastery of more than 800 friars, dedicated to publishing. At that time, St. Maximilian Kolbe was in Nagasaki, Japan, establishing a similar Franciscan media enclave, but Fr. Lucjan got to know him well when he returned to Poland in 1937. “I knew him for three years and met with him almost every day,” said Fr. Lucjan. “He wanted all of us to be Franciscan missionaries.”
He recalls playing chess with St. Maximilian who he called a “mathematical genius.”
“St. Maximilian could beat anybody and he would play five or six of us at the same time,” said Fr. Lucjan. “But, sometimes he would give us a chance to win.”
Fr. Lucjan’s time with St. Maximilian, who he described as strict but very loving and maternal towards the young Friars, came to abrupt end in 1940 when Fr. Lucjan was taken prisoner by invading Soviet troops at the start of World War II and sent to a concentration camp in Siberia. He spent 13 or 14 hours per day cutting down trees. With communists firmly in control of Poland, they drafted Fr. Lucjan into the Polish army and sent him to the Middle East. He eventually gained his freedom and was finally ordained a priest, in 1946 at St. Joseph University in Beirut, Lebanon, before being assigned to become the chaplain of the Polish orphans from Siberia at an East African settlement.
It was in East Africa where he met Polish children who were orphaned after their parents perished in Soviet prisons during the war. At this time, Poland was under communist control and the communists demanded these children be repatriated to Poland. Fr. Lucjan, however, had other ideas.
In a heroic eﬀort, Fr. Lucjan, despite being charged with kidnapping by the Polish government, risked his life to help the children migrate to Canada, via an elaborate journey, where they were able to start a new life and remain free.
“I knew that personally I had no responsibility for these children, but I began to take care of them anyway,” said Fr. Lucjan.
The children were first boarded on a secret train from Italy to Germany and then sailed to Canada, the only country that would agree to sponsor them. Through the years, Fr. Lucjan has remained in contact with these children, many who are now elderly themselves, and has enjoyed several reunions with them.
In 1983 Fr. Lucjan published the first of his two books, Stolen Childhood: A Saga of Polish War Children, which detailed this incredible story.
Later, Fr. Lucjan would publish Siberian Prisoner and Displaced Person, which provided more detail on his time in Russia.
Fr. Lucjan has lived in the United States for the last 34 years having arrived in Athol Springs, NY, in 1966. In the spirit of St. Maximilian Kolbe, who did his missionary work through his media, Fr. Lucjan spent 32 years as a member of the editorial staﬀ of “The Father Justin Rosary Hour,” a Franciscan radio program aired in Western New York.
During those programs Fr. Lucjan often spoke of the great adventures of his life and revealed that faith was the greatest factor in his ability to survive. “We prayed every day,” he said. “Those who believe in God survived. Others couldn’t find the means to go on. Some committed suicide.”
In 2013, Fr. Lucjan, at the age of 93, was inducted into the Order of the Smile, an international honor founded in Poland in 1968 and awarded at the request of children.
He also spoke of hunger.
“The greatest plague is hunger. I can’t explain hunger to you. You have to live it. They told us you will forget everything about yourself: your religion, your family, your country. It was true. We were dreaming about a piece of bread.”
His enduring message to the young is, “Avoid ideologies.
“Mein Kampf was beautifully written, but it was a poison. Ideologies are ideas born in the heads of people, especially atheists, who look at you as an animal. Maybe a better animal, but still an animal that can be killed or do whatever they want. Hitler had an ideology.”
Fr. Lucjan resides at Our Lady of the Angels Care Center in Enfield, Connecticut. †
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Wonderful article on an inspiring friar!