WICHITA, Kan. — If Helen Kapaun had known that her brother-in-law might one day be canonized, she would have paid more attention to what he had to say on her wedding day.
Helen married Eugene Kapaun in October 1948; her brother-in-law, Father Emil Kapaun, presided at the wedding ceremony.
The cause for the canonization of Father Kapaun, an Army chaplain who died at age 35 while a prisoner of war in Pyoktong, North Korea, in 1951, was officially opened in the Diocese of Wichita, Kan., June 29.
Following a Mass celebrated by Wichita Bishop Michael Jackels in Father Kapaun’s hometown of Pilsen, Kan., officials of the diocesan canonization process took their oath of office in a short ceremony. Andrea Ambrosi, Roman postulator for the cause, was present to make the announcement that the Father Emil Kapaun cause for sainthood was officially opened.
“If I had known then what I know now,” Helen Kapaun said, “I would have listened better to the homily and tried to get to know him better at the reception. But we were so much in love that we weren’t paying much attention to anyone around us.”
She remembers Father Kapaun as a very kind and quiet individual.
“My husband used to tell stories about their childhood together,” Helen said. “Father Kapaun was always forgiving. He didn’t tattletale; he didn’t join in the sibling squabbles. He was always the quiet one. Still, he could play jokes on people and have fun.”
Father Kapaun was later released from diocesan work in order to serve as a chaplain in the Korean conflict. This was his second chaplaincy, the first having been in the China-India-Burma theater of World War II.
Chaplain Kapaun died in the prison hospital in the Pyoktong — a place from which no one ever returned. Sources differ on the exact date and cause of his death. Army records indicate that he died of pneumonia on May 6, 1951. His fellow prisoners insist that he died on May 23, 1951, from malnutrition and starvation and dehydration.
Korean government records from that period are sketchy and difficult to obtain. Officials for the cause wish to prove that Father Kapaun died a martyr, mistreated because of his position as a Catholic priest who bravely voiced his opposition to the communist regime.
“It’s very unusual that a chaplain would be singled out for this kind of recognition,” said Auxiliary Bishop Richard Higgins of the Archdiocese for Military Services USA. “Father Kapaun died in what’s often referred to as the forgotten war. A lot of clergy in WWII got significant recognition, especially those who died in the concentration camps during the Holocaust. Not much has been written about the Korean War. Basically, Father Kapaun was one of the forgotten ones. Now we get to hear the rest of the story.”
Father Kapaun is said to have been a heroic priest and chaplain to the men that he served. Volunteering to stay behind with the injured, he was captured by the North Korean and Chinese forces.
His service to his fellow prisoners has become legendary among those who knew of him. Scores of men attribute their survival to Chaplain Kapaun through his example of self-sacrifice — not only giving of himself to tend wounded and ailing fellow prisoners, bury the dead and sneaking out to steal food and supplies, but even surrendering his own meager rations so that others might be nourished. All was done in spite of his own suffering from a disabling blood clot in his leg, eye infection, disease and malnutrition. Mostly, Chaplain Kapaun was a source of hope for everyone around him. He never stopped encouraging the soldiers, persisted in offering Mass and prayer services and did his best to bring God to those around him.
“Father Kapaun was a man of hope,” said Father John Hotze, episcopal delegate for the canonization cause. “When we talked to survivors [of the prisoner of war camp], every one of them said that it was through his work that they were given the strength and hope to survive.”
Sacrifice for Others
There has already been considerable work completed toward Father Kapaun’s cause at both the diocesan and military archdiocesan level. The initiative began through the efforts of Archbishop for the Military Services Joseph Dimino, who in 1993 called for Father Kapaun to receive the title Servant of God. The information gathered over the past 15 years at these two levels will provide a basis for the documentation needed for the canonization process.
Father Hotze thinks the process will linger for at least a couple of years at the diocesan level before moving to Rome.
“It’s all about hope,” he said. “Father Kapaun was all about instilling hope. Through hard work, prayer, and the intercession of Father Kapaun, it will happen if God wills it.”
“The Church has always regarded military service as a ‘true vocation, a high calling and a sacred duty,’” said Judy McCloskey, founder of CatholicMil.org, a Web-based resource for Catholic military personnel and their families. “The fact that Father Kapaun endured the worst scenario of military service — inhumane treatment within the confines of a godless communist POW camp — can only serve to inspire military personnel today.
“The life of Father Kapaun gives us pause to measure ourselves against his strength of character, firm resolve, devotion to duty and to God, and his sense of knowing life is lived fully when lived and sacrificed for others.”
Marge Fenelon is based in
Supporting the Cause
According to Episcopal Delegate Father John Hotze of the Diocese of Wichita, the best way to support the Cause for Canonization of Father Emil Kapaun is to learn about him and pray for his cause. The canonization process can be costly and monetary donations are appreciated.
Father Kapaun Guild
Catholic Diocese of Wichita
424 North Broadway
Wichita, KS 67202
Archdiocese for Military Services, USA
Diocese of Wichita