A plane touched down in Wichita, Kansas, Saturday afternoon, carrying the flag-draped casket of a Catholic priest who may one day be declared a saint, a decorated war hero who had received the Medal of Honor, his country’s highest military decoration.
Fr. Emil Kapaun, a priest of the Diocese of Wichita, was an Army chaplain during World War II and the Korean War. He died in a North Korean prisoner of war camp in May 1951.
Kapaun was buried in a mass grave, and even while his canonization cause proceeded in the Church, his body was unaccounted for — until it was identified in March 2021. A funeral Mass will be offered on Wednesday; Kapaun’s body will be interred in Wichita’s cathedral.
So who was Fr. Kapaun? How was his body identified? And what happens now?
The Pillar has the story:
Emil Kapaun was born in 1916 on a central Kansas farm, the son of Bohemian immigrants. He entered the seminary shortly after high school, and was ordained a priest in June 1940. He served in ordinary pastoral ministry until August 1944, when he responded to a call for military priest-chaplains.
After Army training, Kapaun was sent to India, and ministered to American soldiers stationed there until May 1946. He traveled between outposts and bases, often by himself, putting sometimes 2,000 miles on his Jeep each month.
Kapaun left the Army in 1946. He studied at The Catholic University of America until he was called back to active duty in 1948. In January 1950, he was sent to Japan, to support an Army unit fighting in the Korean War.
With his unit in the thick of the fighting, Kapaun crisscrossed Korea for months to serve military units at the front, often offering Mass on the hood of his Jeep. The priest was known for a tireless pastoral presence, although he often said it was no more than the work ethic his farmer parents had given him.
In the November 1950 Battle of Unsan, Kapaun’s unit was ambushed, and forced into a chaotic retreat. The priest carried wounded men away from the fighting, often under heavy fire.
He was captured during that battle, but he escaped when his captors were shot by U.S. and South Korean forces.
But as Kapaun stayed near the front to carry the wounded to safety, he was captured again. He would not make another escape.
Kapaun was made to march with other soldiers nearly 100 miles to a prison camp. When the priest arrived at the filthy camp, he did what he could to support his fellow soldiers. He stole food for them, offered Mass in secret, nursed sick men to health, and gave away the few things he had to soldiers who needed them more.
In 1951, he developed a blood clot and became weak. He couldn’t eat. He could barely celebrate Easter Mass in late March, 1951. After weeks in a filthy hospital camp, he died on May 23, 1951. He was 35 years old, and was buried in a mass grave.
He was remembered as a hero, and was eventually awarded posthumously the Medal of Honor for his sacrifices.
Evangelist Chris Stefanick tells Fr. Kapaun’s story this way:
After the priest died, fellow soldiers told stories about his generosity, his selflessness, and his heroism. Catholic soldiers especially remembered the priest, and eventually began to pray for his protection. Many of them urged his diocese to support a cause that might declare Fr. Kapaun in a saint.
After the diocese had taken up that cause, Kapaun was declared in 1993 a “Servant of God,” — one of the first formal steps on the road to canonization. The cause has continued, and some expect that Kapaun could be named a “Venerable,” — the next step in the process — soon.
The Church is investigating the possibility that the priest’s prayers are responsible for a miracle. In fact, an auditor from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints is investigating at least two possible miracles related to Fr. Kapaun.
When Avery Gerleman of Wichita was 12 years old, she started vomiting blood during a 2006 soccer tournament in Arkansas. She was rushed to a hospital, where doctors thought at first she had pneumonia. But her condition deteriorated. Her kidneys shut down. Her lungs struggled. Her heart was in danger of doing the same. Doctors knew she had an auto-immune condition, but they weren’t sure quite what to do about it.
Gerleman spent four months in a Wichita hospital. She was fully expected to die. But, to everyone’s surprise, she didn’t.
Her parents believe their daughter lived because they entrusted her to the intercession of Fr. Kapaun. Avery believes that too.
Now 19, and playing soccer at a community college, she has told reporters she’s praying for the canonization of the priest.
Chase Kear is praying for the same thing.
Kear was in a pole vaulting accident in 2008 that should have killed him. He was a college student, and a track athlete.
Before a routine jump, he grabbed the wrong pole, and because of that, he missed the soft landing pit after his jump, and landed on hard ground, cracking his skull and breaking his back. Doctors removed a third of Kear’s skull, but they expected he was on his deathbed. His injury was not the type from which people walk away.
His family began praying for Kapaun’s intercession. And Chase Kear lived.
Today, Kear says Fr. Kapaun saved his life.
Whether the Congregation for Causes will agree with Chase Kear and Avery Gerleman remains to be seen. But in Kansas, plenty of Catholics are praying they will.
After he died in 1951, Fr. Kapaun was buried in a mass North Korean grave with other American prisoners of war.
In 1954, the remains of thousands of U.S. soldiers were returned to U.S. custody, including the bodies in Fr. Kapaun’s grave.
While many soldiers were quickly identified and sent to be buried by family members, the remains of 848 unidentified soldiers were buried in a federal cemetery in Hawaii.
A federal agency employing archeologists, anthropologists, and scientists is tasked with identifying the remains of unknown American soldiers; the agency, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, has identified hundreds of bodies, making it possible for them to be buried alongside family members, and mourned properly by loved ones.
This year, the agency confirmed that it had identified Kapaun’s remains among those buried in Hawaii. The priest’s body arrived in Wichita Sept. 25.
After a funeral Mass Wednesday, Kapaun will be buried in Wichita’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, in a marble tomb installed earlier this month.