The Great Saints of Poland

Poland has a history full of great saints, including two who are the patron saints of World Youth Day this year.

A statue of Saint Faustina at the convent in Kraków (Photo: WYM)
A statue of Saint Faustina at the convent in Kraków (Photo: WYM)

We’re back again! Over the last few weeks we’ve been handing out useful tips and trying to wet your appetite before you head off to the land of beauty and baked goods that is Poland. This week the focus is something a little different, yet just as enlightening – Saints.

With 31 Saints, 41 Roman Catholic Dioceses and an ever-growing 33 million Catholics, Poland is certainly not a country lacking in divine inspiration. Read on to brush up on your knowledge of some of the most famous Polish saints, gain some new insights, and learn why it is that St. Faustina and St. John Paul II have been chosen to represent this year’s theme of Divine Mercy.

Saint Faustina

Saint Faustina

Saint Faustina (1905-1938) was born Helena Kowalski. She grew up amongst 9 other siblings in Łódź.

Faustina began hearing the call of Jesus from the early age of seven. This is one of the many things she noted in her diary. She fought against Jesus’s voice for a long time at first, not fully understanding what it was. At the age of eighteen while at a dance, Faustina saw Him, suffering, once again and He said to her: “How long will you keep putting Me off?” Shortly thereafter, Faustina left home with nothing but the dress she was wearing, and found her way into a convent in Warsaw.

She was responsible for the painting of the Divine Mercy. Though she did not paint it herself, as she didn’t have this skill, she instructed Eugeniusz Kazimirowski from the vision that Jesus chose to bestow to her. He also commanded that she have the image blessed on the first Sunday after Easter – what came to be known as the Feast of Mercy.

Saint John Paul II

John Paul II

Saint John Paul II (1920-2005) was born Karol Józef Wojtyla. In 1978, he became the first Polish pope (in fact the first who wasn’t Italian) in over 400 years. Just three years later he was almost assassinated in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City. He was shot twice and yet lived on and eventually forgave his assailant.

He was an amazing linguist, speaking more than eight languages fluently, including Latin! This skill surely benefited him as he visited 129 countries during his papacy. He was an enthusiastic skier and the first pope to visit Cuba, a synagogue and the White House.

It was John Paul who came up with the initial idea for World Youth Day as he spoke to a crowd of 300,000 youth, and the first official event was held two years later in Rome. Less than ten years after that, at the 1995 WYD in the Philippines, more than five million people gathered to hear his Mass. This is one of the largest congregations of people ever, and the second largest commanded by a pope (surpassed only on 18 January 2015 by Pope Francis with a crowd of six million in Manila).

Both Patron Saints were hugely devoted to the Divine Mercy, and in fact it was John Paul who brought Saint Faustina’s previously banned work back into the fold. In 1978, after fourteen years of work and prayer, he managed to convince the Vatican to reverse its ban on her works. When John Paul was eventually proclaimed Pope on 16 October of the same year, it was during the feast of Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque and the Sacred Heart. It is said that his happiest day was in 2000 when he canonised Sister Faustina.

Saint Maximilian Kolbe

Fr Maximilian Kolbe

There are several martyr saints in Polish history, and Saint Maximilian Kolbe (1894-1941) is perhaps one of the most well known. He is known for spending much of his life promoting the Virgin Mary and for publishing many religious works. When Germany invaded Poland during WWII, Kolbe and his fellow friars hid 2,000 Jews from persecution. For this reason, among others, he was arrested and sent to Auschwitz Concentration Camp, where he continued to serve as priest, for which he was severely punished. When the Nazi guards were selecting ten inmates to be starved to death, he is said to have voluntarily taken a place of a man who had a family. He prayed throughout two weeks and was the last one left alive. Finally, the guards gave him a lethal injection to which he did not resist.

Saint Kinga of Poland

St. Kinga's Chapel in Wieliczka (Photo: K. Banükowski)
St. Kinga’s Chapel in Wieliczka (Photo: K. Banükowski)

Other stories are less dark, like that of Saint Kinga of Poland/Cunegunda (1224-1292) who was born into Hungarian royalty. She married Bolesław V the Chaste and eventually became the Princess of Kraków. Legend has it that she threw her engagement ring into the Maramures salt mine in Hungary, only for it to travel with salt deposits and be discovered all the way in Wieliczka salt mine just outside of Kraków! After her husband died, she sold her possessions, gave the money to the poor, and spent the rest of her days in a monastery.

Saint Jadwiga

Portrait of Queen Jadwiga by Bacciarelli

Saint Jadwiga, Queen of Poland (1373-1399) also came from royalty, and actually became the first female monarch of Poland at the tender age of ten, reigning for fifteen years. At the age of one, she was betrothed to Wilhelm, heir of Austria; however, these plans were eventually set aside and she married Duke Jagiello of Lithuania and Ruthenium when she was twelve. Throughout her life she was a symbol of unwavering faith, generously supported Catholic monasteries and churches as well as played a large role in converting pagan Lithuanians of the time to Christianity. Jadwiga was also a fierce propagator of education, donating all her personal jewelry to expand the University of Kraków (renamed later Jagiellonian University), which, thanks to her, became one of the most important higher education institutions in Central Europe.

Interesting stuff, right?

Tune in next time for some useful Polish phrases to take with you!

This article was kindly provided by our wonderful friends at the Polish Cultural Institute in London. Click here to learn more about them.