Join me on my summer holiday as I travel (mostly) through Italy—as always, in search of beautiful sites, sculpture and all things sculpture-ish.
Between the Piazza del Popolo and the Scalinata di Spagna stands an unassuming church with a very interesting history: Sant'Andrea della Fratte ("St. Andrew of the Woods"). The first church was built on this site in 1192 when this area was the wooded outskirts of Medieval Rome. The basilica minor which stands there today was built between 1604 and 1826. For a time, it was designated as Rome's church for Scotsmen as it was nearby the Scots College (a seminary for Scottish priests). Eventually the Scots embraced Protestantism and abandoned their formal relationship with Rome.
On 20 January 1842, Alphonse Ratisbonne, a young Jewish law student, was touring Rome and visited this church. The Virgin Mary appeared to him in a side chapel, prompting his conversion to Catholicism. Eventually he became a Jesuit priest and missionary. The side chapel where this apparition occurred became known as the Madonna of the Miracle; even today, the pews face this side chapel rather than toward the main altar. In 1918, Saint Maximillian Kolbe celebrated his first Mass in this very side chapel.
Kolbe was born in Central Poland, then part of the Russian Empire. As a twelve year old boy (in 1906), Kolbe experienced his own vision of the Virgin Mary. She offered him one of two crowns: a white one for everlasting purity or a red crown for martyrdom. When asked which one he wanted, he asked to be given both. The next year he entered the seminary and in 1912 was sent to the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome where he earned his first Doctorate (in Philosophy) in 1915. He was ordained in 1918 and celebrated his first Mass at the very altar where Ratisbonne experienced the apparition.
Kolbe, now a Franciscan friar, returned to Poland where he taught in Krakow and published devotional literature. He later set-out on a mission to China, Japan and India before returning to Poland in 1936. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Kolbe was arrested for two months after which he was released. He was offered a chance to sign a document confirming his ethnic German ancestry, which he refused to do. In his monastery, Kolbe continued to publish—this time anti-Nazi literature—and he helped hide over 2,000 Jews, many of them refugees.
In 1941, Father Kolbe was arrested and his friary was shut-down by the Germans. Later that Spring, he was transferred to Auschwitz and tattooed with the number 16670. He continued his priestly ministry within Auschwitz, a decision which led to harassment and vicious beatings. In late July 1941, a prisoner escaped the camp, leading the infuriated commander to select ten prisoners who would be starved-to-death in an underground pit—a ghastly warning to any remaining prisoners who might try to escape. One of the selected men cried out, "My wife! My children!" at which Kolbe volunteered to take his place. Without water or food, all but Kolbe were dead within two weeks. Wanting to clear the cell, the Nazi guards injected Father Kolbe with carbolic acid which killed him on 14 August 1941. He was cremated the following day, on the Feast of the Assumption of Mary. Kolbe was canonized in 1982.
The sculpture shown here is marked with a plaque which reads: "In this Chapel of the Apparition, Saint Maximilian M. Kolbe celebrated his first Mass. 29 April 1918."
We'll continue our summer holiday tomorrow.
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