Joseph Kowalski was born at Siedliska near Rzeszów, in Poland, on the 13th March 1911, to Wojciech and Zofia Borowiec, the seventh of nine children. His parents, practising Catholics, were farmers and owners of a modest farm.
After his primary schooling, he entered the Salesian College at Oswiecim (Auschwitz). Joseph immediately distinguished himself for his commitment to study and service, and for his cheerfulness. He joined the Immaculate Conception Sodality and the Missionary Association, becoming its President. He literally fell in love with the Salesian charism and its Founder, from whom he sought to take his example in everything: involvement in happy leadership of religious and civic feasts, an apostolic presence amongst his companions and, in particular, the primacy of the spiritual life.
As a young student he began to keep a diary, from which we learn of his devotion to Mary Help of Christians and the Eucharist: “Oh Mother Mary”, he wrote, “I have to become a saint because this is what I am intended for. Oh Jesus, I offer you my poor heart …. May I never be separated from You and may I remain faithful until death: may I die rather than offend You, not even with the slightest sin.
“I must become a holy Salesian, like my Father Don Bosco was”. He made his first profession in 1928 at Czerwinsk and was ordained a priest on the 29th May 1938 at Krakow. He was appointed provincial secretary. In the parish he looked after the youth choir and became interested in young people with problems. Poland had been occupied, but the Salesians continued on with their educational activity. This was why the dramatic arrest came about on the 23rd May 1941: The Gestapo captured Fr Kowalski along with eleven other Salesians working in Krakow.
At first they were taken to the prison in Montelupich in the same city; and from there on the26th June they were taken to the concentration camp in Auschwitz. He was given number 17.350. in the lager and secretly took up an apostolate: he heard confessions, celebrated Mass, said the Rosary, gave clandestine conferences, also about Don Bosco, strengthening his prison friends with the will to struggle for survival. He underwent suffering and humiliation.
Put to death
When he was discovered with a rosary, he refused to trample on it, thus hastening his martyrdom, which occurred at Auschwitz on the 4th July 1942. His body was at first thrown into a refuse dump, then was burned in the camp’s crematorium. His countrymen began to venerate his memory, maintaining that his sacrifice made vocations in Poland more fruitful. Pope John Paul II was of the same opinion, and became personally interested in the cause of various Polish martyrs.
He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in Warsaw on the 13th June 1999.