Bl. Stefan Wincenty Frelichowski
Memorial: February 23
Today’s saint is yet another Pole martyred by the Nazis. One could almost say his priestly ministry was carried out in German concentration camps. For three years, he was a free priest. He passed the remaining six years of his life as a prisoner.
Stefan Wincenty Frelichowski was born January 22, 1913, in Chełmży, Poland, a small town in the northern central part of the country. He was one of six children—three boys, three girls—all of whom grew up around the family bakery and pastry shop run by their father Louis Frelichowski.
All throughout his boyhood and teen years, he participated in Boy Scouts activities and served as an altar boy. Following his high school graduation, he entered the major seminary of the Diocese of Chełmno, based in Pelplin. During seminary he took an active role with the charitable organization Caritas and helped leading scouting activities for the local youth. He continued his involvement with the Boy Scouts even after his ordination.
Ordained on March 4, 1937, he was assigned to be Bishop Stanisław W. Okoniewski’s secretary. Then a little more than a year later, July 1, 1938, the bishop made him vicar of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Toruniu. There he zealously devoted himself to pastoral activity. Afterward people recall he celebrated the Mass with a fervor that surprised many.
It was at the height of his parish ministry that Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Ten days later, on September 11, the Germans arrested him and other area priests and sent them to jail. Although released after a few days, he was again imprisoned on October 18, and this marked the definitive loss of his freedom. No charges were ever brought against him.
At first, the Nazis held him at Fort VII, a 19th century military installation near Toruniu. While imprisoned here, he strove to raise the morale of his fellow prisoners by strengthening their faith. Then there came a very brief stay in the town of Nowym Porcie (New Port), where he worked at cleaning up the devastation of war at Westerplatte peninsula in Gdańsk (this is where the Germans opened the battle to conquer Poland). The Nazis next moved him on January 10, to the concentration camp at Stutthof near Gdańsk, where he was used to work in the local mines. This is the same camp in which Bl. Julia Rodzińska, OP, would later be held and die.
Here, too, he ministered to his fellow prisoners. Somehow he clandestinely procured unconsecrated Communion hosts and some wine and—despite the threat of reprisals, and in very humble conditions—he celebrated the Mass of Holy Thursday in 1940. He also managed to organize times of common prayer, both in the morning and evening, in honor of Our Lady of the Afflicted.
Three weeks later, on April 9, 1940, the Germans transferred him to the Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg camp near Berlin. Here he was quarantined in Block 20, run by a kapo and war Hugo Krey, a war criminal known for his cruelty. One inmate remarked, “But a hundred times worse is the block of priests from across the way, [run by bloody Hugo]. Hugo is a monster in human flesh.” He beat the Servant of God Fr. Roman Kozubek, SVD (d. May 16, 1940) so badly that the bespectacled priest died. Kozubek was transferred from Stutthof to this camp on the same day as Fr. Frelichowski.
Frelichowski—with all the ardor of the young clergyman that he was—continued to discreetly minister to the sick, the elderly, and young people, finding for all words of consolation and hope, trying to strengthen the weakest, and helping all bear with dignity the humiliations and persecutions that the bloody kapo inflicted on them.
On December 13, 1940, he was again transferred, this time to Dachau with all the other priests in camp. This was where the Nazis concentrated the clergy they had imprisoned from all over Europe, especially the Poles. During his remaining years, he continued to do what he could to exercise his priesthood.
Father had a chance to make things better for himself. All he had to do was sign the so-called Volksliste. This was an invention of SS chief Heinrich Himmler. It gave Poles—mainly those of German ethnicity or ancestry but also those who were deemed valuable by the Nazis for some reason—a chance to identify as Germans. It was tantamount to renouncing one’s Polish nationality.
He refused to sign. Had he done so, he would have enjoyed improved living conditions. Because he refused, he became subject to cruel retaliation. He ended up in the camp hospital. True to his spirit, perhaps, he spent his convalescence giving spiritual assistance to the sick and the many others who were dying.
Around 1943-44, prisoners experienced a slight improvement in their treatment. They gained the ability to receive food parcels from the families, and it was in this way that the young priest obtained Communion wafers and wine with which he celebrated Mass in the various blocks. He also he persuaded other inmates to give up some of their gifts. This enabled him to organize a distribution of food to those who did not receive anything.
In late 1944, however, a typhus epidemic broke out due to the poor sanitary conditions. The camp authorities did not even try to fight it. Conditions got so bad the Germans separated entire prisoner blocks by barbed wire, and the sick were left in inhumane conditions.
Father was nonetheless able to communicate with them and bring them a few pieces of bread and as well as the comfort of faith to the dying. He did this despite the calls of his peers to protect himself, to not to risk the contagion, which he nonetheless acquired via his generosity.
Along with typhus he also contracted pneumonia. This one-two punch did him in, and he died at just 32 years old on February 23, 1945, only a few weeks before Dachau’s liberation. He was among the last of all the internees to die.
Although it was a violation of camp regulations, authorities agreed to allow a public viewing of Fr. Frelichowski corpse in a coffin that was lined with a white sheet and decorated with flowers. Before the body was cremated, a prisoner named Stanisław Bieniek, who had studied medicine before the war, made a death mask from Father’s face. He also made a plaster cast of one of the fingers of his right hand.
Because of this, Father is the only Polish martyr of World War II killed in a concentration camp for whom relics have been preserved.
Pope St. John Paul II beatified him on June 7, 1999 in Toruniu during the Pontiff’s seventh apostolic journey to Poland.
Two weeks later on June 20, 1999 the Supreme Council of the Scouting Association of the Republic of Poland adopted a resolution declaring of Bl. Stephen Vincent Frelichowski the patron saint of Polish Scouting. The Vatican later approved the designation.