Adam Hilary Bernard Chmielowski was born on 20 August 1845 in Igołomia, on the outskirts of Krakow, Poland, to a wealthy aristocratic family. He was one of four children of Adelbert Chmielowski and Josephine Borzyslawska. His parents died when he was young, however, and he was raised by relatives. When he completed his schooling, he studied agriculture in order to manage the family estate. Again, however, tragedy intervened: he lost a leg when he was 18 after he got involved in the Polish Nationalist Uprising of 1863. He then had to live in exile for a time in Belgium, where he discovered he had a talent for painting.
He returned to Krakow in 1874 and became a well-known and well-liked artist. His interests in politics and art made him keenly aware of the human misery around him, and he felt called to help those in need. Albert believed that the great calamity of our time was that people refused to see and relieve the suffering of their unfortunate brothers and sisters. The ‘haves’ lived away from the ‘have-nots’ in order to ignore them and to leave their care to others.
Becoming a Franciscan tertiary, he took the name ‘Albert’ and abandoned painting. He began a life of working with and for the poorest of Krakow. In 1887 he founded the Brothers of the Third Order of Saint Francis, Servants of the Poor, known as the Albertines or the Grey Brothers. In 1891 he founded the women’s congregation of the Order. The Albertines organized food and shelter for the poor and homeless.
He died in Krakow on Christmas Day 1916 in the shelter for the homeless that he had founded.
In 1949, Father Karol Wojtyla (later John Paul II) wrote a play about Albert which eventually became a film in 1997, called Brother of Our God. John Paul II later said that he found great spiritual support for his own vocation in the life of St Albert, whom he saw as an example of leaving behind a world of art, literature and theatre to make a radical choice for the priesthood.
Albert was canonized by John Paul II in 1983.