Today, 17 Jun 2012, is the memorial of St Albert Adam Chmielowski (a.k.a. Adam Hilary Bernard Chmielowski, Brother Albert), a Polish Saint of the 20th century whom God led to serve the poor and homeless. This Saint died a little before Blessed Pope John Paul the Great was born, but impressed JPII so much that in the early years of his priesthood he wrote a whole play about St Albert.
St Albert Chmielowski was born into a wealthy and noble family in 1845 at a place on the outskirts of Krakow, Poland called Igolomia. By 1856 he was an orphan being cared for by relatives, because his father died when he was 8 and his mother died when he was 11. Initially Albert studied agriculture before doing his military service in the cadet corps from 1857-1858. During the 1863 Polish uprising against Russian rule Albert was seriously wounded, necessitating the amputation of his left leg.
In exile from Poland he studied engineering in Ghent, Belgium before discovering an aptitude for painting art. Albert then sought to develop this artistic talent in Paris and Munich. When the time of exile was over, Albert returned to Krakow and developed a reputation as an artist. Increasingly Albert sought to serve God through his art work, the most well known of which is his ‘Ecce Homo’. Over the ten years of his career in fine art, a religious vocation was growing in his heart.
At first Albert tried his vocation with the Jesuits as a lay brother, but his health broke down and he had to leave. Finding the ideals of St Francis of Assisi attractive, he stayed for a while with the Capuchins. Here he began, in a rural setting, to serve the poor and to give most of the proceeds from selling his artworks to assist them. In 1887 he joined the Franciscans as a third order member. It was at this time that took on the religious name Albert and was no longer known as Adam.
When news came to him about the plights of the poor in his former city of Krakow, Albert returned there. Soon his art studio in Krakow was a place where a poor person could find a meal or a homeless person find a place to sleep. Within months Albert was convinced that this was how God wanted him to live out his vocation. Since some others had captured the same vision, they took monastic vows together in 1888, becoming the Brothers of the Third Order of St Francis, Servants of the Poor. They are better known as the Gray Brothers and as the Albertines. Living as rough as the poor they served, Albert and his companions began to set up homeless shelters, refuges for incurables, soup kitchens, workshops, old people’s homes, homes for children and teens and simple educational centres. They accepted anyone in need, regardless of nationality, religion or background. He told the Brothers, “You must be as good as bread, which for everyone rests on the table and from which everyone, if hungry, may cut himself a piece for nourishment”.
It wasn’t long before Albert realised that when it came to looking after some of the needs of poor women required a feminine touch. So in 1891 the Gray Sisters began under the leadership of Blessed Bernardina Jablonska.
Powered by God’s love received in prayer, through the Eucharist and the Cross, and through the maternal intercession of Mary, the religious congregations thrived. By the end of Albert’s life, they numbered 21 religious houses.
After a life of service to the destitute, Albert ended his days in one of the shelters for the poor that he had begun. That was Christmas Day, 1916 and the cause was stomach cancer. Before leaving for eternity, Albert stressed to his Brothers that the observance of poverty had to take primary place in their religious lives. By following God’s call Albert became the means of nourishment, physically and spiritually, for many. In 1983 he was beatified, and canonized a few years later in 1989.
St Albert Adam Chmielowski, pray for us.