When recounting the path to his vocation, a priest often describes a powerful, influential experience that occurred along the way.
How’s this for powerful? In Father Eugene Dobosz’ case, his defining moment took place at a former Nazi death camp.
As a 17-year-old in his native Poland, Father Dobosz visited the Auschwitz facility where St. Maximilian Kolbe made his final, and most renowned, act of faith. He viewed the actual cell where St. Maximilian was given a deadly lethal injection, having sacrificed his life to spare another prisoner.
“There were some fresh flowers there, and his picture. And then I said I would like to be like be him. It was very, very touching,” Father Dobosz recalled.
A few years earlier, Father Dobosz had journeyed to Niepokalanow near Warsaw, the site where St. Maximilian began a thriving monastery in the late 1920s and conducted much of his priestly ministry.
“He made such an impression on me,” said Father Dobosz, who was eventually ordained in 1985.
As St. Maximilian’s feast day is celebrated on Aug. 14, the observance obviously carries special meaning for Father Dobosz. To this day, the 45-year-old priest said, he is guided by St. Maximilian’s example of courage, strength and determination to speak the truth.
Father Dobosz paid tribute to St. Maximilian in a recent parish bulletin of Elmira’s St. Casimir/St. Charles Borromeo cluster, where he has served since 2002 as priest administrator. He wrote that while the extermination of millions of Jews during World War II has been well documented, “it is too bad so little is said about the thousands of brave Catholic Poles who were also condemned to death” such as St. Maximilian.
The saint was born Raymond Kolbe in 1894 and ordained a Franciscan priest in 1918. He not only started a sizeable monastery but also performed extensive missionary work early in his priesthood. At Niepokalanow he also founded a seminary, issued publications promoting the Catholic faith and even launched a Catholic radio station. It was his journalistic endeavors, viewed as anti-Nazi by the Hitler regime, that landed Father Kolbe in Warsaw’s Pawiak Prison in early 1941.
He was transferred a few months later to Auschwitz, where he continued to hear confessions and deliver Communion to other prisoners using smuggled bread and wine, even as he faced beatings and starvation. He ultimately encountered death itself — and did so willingly, so that a young man would be spared because he had a family. Father Kolbe died on Aug. 14, 1941, at age 47. He was beatified in 1971 by Pope Paul VI and canonized in 1982 by Pope John Paul II.
To a less graphic degree, Father Dobosz can relate to practicing one’s faith in the face of oppression. He grew up in Poland under Communist rule; by the time he was ordained, the Solidarity movement was paving the way for a more open atmosphere for Catholics as well as the collapse of communism. Much of this shift was fueled by the influence of the late Pope John Paul, whom Father Dobosz had met briefly on each of the pontiff’s first two trips to his home land in 1979 and 1983.
“The church was coming up on the ground, from under ground. It was a time of many, many movements. Many people had come to believe in Jesus Christ, those who were fighting for freedom. The church was so excited,” Father Dobosz said. “I never thought that communism would collapse so easily and so fast. I had thought it would be a long, long time.”
Father Dobosz said that not long after he was ordained, he was warned by a governmental official that if he ever defected, he would never see his family alive again. But by 1993 he was able to move to the United States, where his brother was already in seminary in Detroit. Father George Dobosz now serves as a priest in the Diocese of Corpus Christi, Texas.
Father Dobosz’s current assignment at St. Casimir/St. Charles Borromeo will last until a planned parish reconfiguration takes place in Elmira within the next year. From there, he said he hopes to have a new assignment in the Diocese of Rochester and become incardinated as a diocesan priest.