Mason who built local shrines escaped Nazis with saint’s help

Mary Ann Wasserman | Special to The Michigan Catholic

Franciscan sister recalls late father’s connection to St. Maximilian Kolbe

Franciscan Sr. Irenaeus Samsel stands with her father, Francis Samsel in front of a shrine built at his house in Temperance. Samsel was given money and a letter of recommendation by Fr. Maximillian Kolbe to escape a seminary in Nazi-controlled Poland to come to the U.S. in 1938. Family Photo

Franciscan Sr. Irenaeus Samsel stands with her father, Francis Samsel in front of a shrine built at his house in Temperance. Samsel was given money and a letter of recommendation by Fr. Maximilian Kolbe to escape a seminary in Nazi-controlled Poland to come to the U.S. in 1938.
Family Photo

Temperance — Franciscan Sr. Irenaeus Samsel might have inherited her vocation from her father Francis Samsel — who in turn inherited his from a certain heroic Polish martyr.

“My father was a skilled mason, learning his craft under the direction of Fr. Maximilian Kolbe,” said Sr. Irenaeus, of the Franciscan Sisters of Sylvania, Ohio, and a native of Temperance. “He was learning his craft while studying to be a Franciscan brother. He told me many stories.”

Sr. Irenaeus’ grandfather, Peter, owned land in Europe; her grandparents traveled back and forth from the United States to Poland — as homesickness for their native land overwhelmed them. Eventually, her father entered the seminary around 1932 at Niepokalanow, Poland.

One day, while the young seminarian was working on campus, a novice was dispatched by Fr. Kolbe to fetch him.

“He informed Francis the office wanted to see him,” said Jim Lemble, a member of St. Anthony Parish in Temperance and Ottawa Lake resident.

As Samsel gathered up his masonry work and headed to see Fr. Kolbe, he was given a surprise instruction.

“Here is your birth certificate, your passport, a letter of recommendation, money, and get on the next ship to the United States,” Lemble recalled.

“My father was an American citizen,” Sr. Irenaeus explained. “He told me if he had not left Europe, he would be conscripted into the Nazi forces and would lose his citizenship.”

With occupation of Poland by the Nazis during World War II, the seminary was closed in 1941. Artifacts were desecrated or stolen. Fr. Kolbe had initiated a newspaper encouraging Polish citizens to resist the enemy, but this was dismantled also.

Fr. Kolbe and other prisoners were taken to Auschwitz, where the future saint famously offered his life in exchange for the life of another prisoner. A prisoner’s escape from the stalag had resulted in the prison commandant randomly selecting 10 men to be executed in retribution. Among the men was a married man who began to lament for his wife and children. Fr. Kolbe stepped forward, requesting to take his place. The commandant agreed and relegated the 10 prisoners to a death bunker.

For about two weeks, the men were denied nutrition. On the 14th day, the commandant ordered the bunker opened. The only prisoner alive, on the fringes of death, was Fr. Kolbe. According to Sr. Irenaeus, the priest was injected with carbolic acid and was martyred.

When Samsel arrived in the United States around 1938, he attempted to locate another seminary, but because of the Great Depression, it wasn’t financially feasible. Instead, he joined the federal Works Progress Administration, where he was assigned to build brick structures for public projects.

“He built all the fireplaces in Oak Openings Metropark,” Sr. Irenaeus said.

Samsel was introduced to his future bride, Sophie, in 1938, and they were married the next year at St. Adalbert Parish. The couple moved often, eventually settling at St. Anthony Parish in Temperance, about two blocks from the family home, where Samsel became a sacristan.

“Dad and Mom purchased about five and one-half acres in about 1947,” Sr. Irenaeus said. “They paid about $500 for the entire plat.”

The family lived in a garage built on site for about two years until Samsel had completed building a natural stone home.

“Dad fitted each stone exclusively — cutting and scraping away at an edge — to make sure the units all fit together perfectly as a jigsaw puzzle,” Sr. Irenaeus said.

But that wasn’t all. With his masonry skills, Samsel quickly built a reputation as a go-to source for building religious shrines, designing and constructing at least eight different structures dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

One of those shrines was constructed in the yard of Pat and Gerald Fadell, a Toledo-area couple whom the Samsel family and Lemble knew through a series of first Saturday Masses.

Francis Samsel, a former seminary student of Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, displays one of eight shrines he built after escaping Nazi Poland. The late Samsel, formerly of Temperance, built his house in the shape of a cross from jigsaw pieces of sandstone. Family Photo

Francis Samsel, a former seminary student of Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, displays one of eight shrines he built after escaping Nazi Poland. The late Samsel, formerly of Temperance, built his house in the shape of a cross from jigsaw pieces of sandstone.
Family Photo

“My wife Pat was ill with cancer,” Jerry Fadell recalled. “She wanted a shrine built to Mary.”

With Jerry Fadell digging a hole in the turf, the three men started the project. After designing a blueprint to accommodate the bricks, Samsel laid a block foundation about three feet deep, reinforcing the structure with three or four rows of dirt while Lemble used a round tool to close the seams in a rear joint.

“The shrine took about three months to build,” Fadell said, and was completed in October 1998. About 150 people attended the shrine’s dedicated, presided over by the late Fr. Richard Miller.

“Francis carved a cross in the sandstone — a slab of it forms the roof,” Lemble said.

Lemble recalled meeting Samsel in an unusual way; several months earlier, he had happened along the mason when Samsel’s truck had broken down.

“He was about 80 years old at the time and asked me to help him to construct a shrine,” said Lemble, who gave the parts to fix Samsel’s vehicle.

So the two men went out to Samsel’s back yard and loaded up the bricks, mortar and flat slabs of sandstone, stopping at the lumber yard to buy a tub of sand.

“He was a fast worker and I could not keep up with him,” Lemble said, recalling Samsel as having a “serious” personality.

Today, one of the shrines rests in Angel Garden on the campus of the Little Sisters of the Poor in Oregon, Ohio, to whom it was donated in 2002 after Fadell eventually sold the house in Sylvania, Ohio.

As for Fr. Kolbe, Samsel and his wife traveled to Rome for his canonization Mass in 1982.

“They were able to meet the family man who was spared by Fr. Kolbe’s volunteering his own life to the Nazi regime,” Sr. Irenaeus said.

Upon her father’s death, Sr. Irenaeus inherited the letter of recommendation written for him by Fr. Kolbe — and marked with the official seal of the Niepokalanow seminary.

“Essentially, the letter says Dad was a person of good character and left Poland of his own volition,” Sr. Irenaeus said.

The document now rests at National Shrine of St. Maximilian Kolbe or Marytown — at Libertyville, Ill.


Mary Ann Wasserman is a freelance writer from Toledo, Ohio.