Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, and Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in major newspapers. He holds an MS degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
Great news! A new film is underway about the Grunt Padre —Servant of God Father Vincent Capodanno, a Medal of Honor recipient, posthumously, for his heroism on Sept. 4, 1967.
That day, on a small, bloody knoll during a fierce battle with Marines greatly outnumbered by the North Vietnamese, it took more than 25 enemy bullets to stop Navy chaplain Father Capodanno, already severely wounded, as he moved about the field bringing comfort to all, ministering to the dying, and rescuing the wounded of “Mike” Company’s 1st, 2nd and 3rd platoons.
But this film — a partnership between the Father Vincent Capodanno Guild and EWTN — will not be only about those last hours in Father Capodanno’s life.
But let’s take the story from the beginning. From Washington, D.C., George Phillips, the chairman of the Father Vincent Capodanno Guild shared how the project developed. He started with the guild’s twofold mission.
“The first is to raise the funds required to support the cause for canonization,” Phillips told me. “The second is to make the story of this servant of God as widely known as possible. We came to conclusion that while we were spreading the word through presentations, mailings and personal contact, we weren’t doing enough.”
That’s when the guild decided to make a film.
After spending five months looking for the right producer, they found James Kelty. Phillips said he suggested they talk to EWTN. They did, and the rest, as they say, is history, because EWTN was enthused about the subject and the possibilities of the story of this potential saint in the making. The network already knew the high quality and artistry of Kelty’s work.
Last November EWTN aired Kateri, its first original movie. Kelty wrote and directed it. On June 22 this year, Kelty was in Rome with Alan Holdren of the EWTN Rome Bureau to receive the Capax Dei Award for Kateri at the Mirabile Dictu International Catholic Film Festival sponsored by the Vatican.
(The Kateri movie will re-air on EWTN at 4:00 pm EST on Thurs., July 14th — St. Kateri’s feast day. And the four-part docu-drama Kateri-All for Christ, an EWTN original television mini-series filmed on location in Canada and the United States presenting the life of St. Kateri Tekakwitha in four episodes that combine stunning dramatizations and expert historical commentary and analysis, will be broadcast daily beginning on July 11. Check EWTN for local times.)
Back in 2013, EWTN already aired a miniseries about St. Junipero Serra called Serra: Ever Forward Never Back which Kelty wrote and directed, and two years earlier Kelty’s Footprints in the Wilderness, a series about the North American Martyrs.
“That got us started,” Phillips said after the guild’s contract with EWTN. His role is writer/director/producer. Right away the guild set out laying down schedules and gathering people to appear in the film to tell what they knew of Father Capodanno and how their were affected by him.
Family, Marines, and More
To appear in the film, Phillips “asked a lot of the surviving remaining Marines from that Sept. 4, 1967 battle,” he said. “We gathered about 15 — Catholics and non-Catholics. We got an Episcopal priest who was a good friend of Father Capodanno. We also got people who knew him in Staten Island where he grew up. In the last six weeks we taped several people in Staten Island, then went to Ossining [N.Y.] to get the historical footage.” Other people were interviewed on film at the EWTN studios in Orange, Calif. and Irondale. Ala.
Director Kelty shared some specific names, beginning with relatives. “We’re getting much testimony as possible,” he said, from those including Father Capodanno’s sister Gloria, now 94, his cousin Al Lambert who was about 18 when he left for Vietnam, and Frank Burnside who was the nephew.”
The film crew already visited the Maryknoll missionaries’ seminary in Ossining, N.Y., where Father Capodanno studied and entered the Maryknoll order to serve in Asia.
Already interviewed for the film are some of those Vietnam veterans “including Henry Hernandez, the chaplain assistant; Victor Krulak, an Episcopalian chaplain who knew Father Capodanno quite well, and Marines who were in combat that day he died,” said director Kelty.
One is Steve Lovejoy, a radio operator in the battle. Father Capodanno “helped him drag the radio up a hill in the middle of the battle and threw him into a bomb crater, saving his life.” And there is Fred Tancke who was there when Father Capodanno was shot.
Lovejoy once wrote about the cause for canonization “of which I wholeheartedly agree! He saved my life! 4 Sept. 1967, Operation Swift. I was one of several that the ‘Grunt Padre’ rescued.”
Heading to Vietnam
“Father Mode is going to lead us back to Vietnam at the end of August on a pilgrimage to the site where he intends to say Mass on the 49th anniversary of Father Capodanno’s death,” Kelty emphasized.
Phillips pointed out the topic about going back to Vietnam “to the place where this action takes place — what we call a knoll in Vietnam,” started to fall into place about six weeks ago. He said the guild asked a couple of people who were there on that Sept. 4 day if they would go, including “the company commander, the platoon commander and one of the two guys who actually saw Father Capodanno get killed. A good group which will give a good perspective on the battle and the first and second platoons.”
“We’re going there to do filming and say Mass there on the 4th of September, the 49th anniversary of his death,” Phillips affirmed.
Award-winning director Kelty is hoping for one more piece of the puzzle to fall into place. “If the Marines cooperate we may be able to do some reenactments,” he said. “That’s still a gleam-in-the-eye stage.”
For that to happen, the additional funding for it needs to be raised. “We’re hoping, though,” Kelty said.
Phillips has other important aims for this film that the guild hopes will spread the true story of Father Capodanno. He said in a video made in the 1980s “there were a lot of errors.” Phillips should know. He was one of the Marines on the battlefield in Vietnam the day Father Capodanno was killed in action.
“We’re attempting to do a more encompassing presentation than just one day in his life,” Phillips explained about the film’s theme. The guild doesn’t want to focus only on that one day Father Capodanno gave up his life on the battlefield in Vietnam while ministering to the wounded and dying in the midst of relentless attacks and gunfire.
Phillips makes it clear, “The focus and the purpose of this new one is to take the story from where he was born and baptized in St. Michael’s Church on Staten Island, and build up the history of Father Capodanno that led him to Maryknoll.” And then to the Navy chaplaincy and Vietnam.
Kelty and the crew have already been at Staten Island, N.Y., across from Manhattan, visiting and capturing on film Father Capodanno’s boyhood home, the neighborhood where he grew up, and St. Michael’s which he attended. There they filmed the font where Father Capodanno was baptized.
With all the location footage and the interviews Kelty wants to “bring out the humanity of the person he was, the effect he had on people. Everyone who ever met him said ‘he was radiating Christ’ — the term Father Mode uses,” Kelty said. “So we’re trying to bring that out through the words and voices of people we interviewed.”
From the compelling way Kelty has told the stories of saints on EWTN over the past several years, from his long experience on series for the History Channel, and from his work also in the secular film industry, Kelty has specific goals and hopes for this film on Father Capodanno.
“None of the projects I do are only for Catholics,” he explained. “I always aim at a general audience. My focus was not doing hagiography — life like they were saints from day one.
“No, these are people who faced the same issues and problems we all face, and their lives demonstrate a transcendent quality,” he said about the saints’ stories, “but they started out the way you and I did. That’s what is compelling to an audience — their humanity and their struggle rather than someone who has a supernatural power we don’t have. The stories mean to guide us in a vicarious expedience with them through their ordeal and to their greatness. We’re lifted up by that. Any good film does that.”
In fact, Kelty is doing that at this time also in a screenplay he wrote called In for a Penny for which he just received the Best Script award at the New York Los Angeles International Film Festival, and which with its story set in a Catholic background, is in negotiations as a Hollywood feature film.
Advancing the Cause
Both Phillips and Kelty foresee the film as advancing the cause for Father Capodanno’s canonization.
Kelty said that Mary Preece, the vice postulator for Father Capodanno’s canonization cause, uses the term fama (Latin for “fame”), but the word implies much more in its meaning. “The wider meaning is of a clamoring,” explains Kelty, “for it’s an outcry, a clamoring to be made a saint for the great things he did. We hope to get the word out about his life so there a clamoring, a fama, for his canonization.”
Phillips and the guild also hope the film will make Father Capodanno more widely known and to have the cause for canonization move along quicker as it joins other steps going on.
“We have a number of miracles that are being investigated,” he explained. People have contacted the guild to tell them about “miracles they believe came for them through the intercession of Father Capodanno. It happens here on a monthly basis,” Phillips said.
Right now people can go to the guild’s website at CapodannoGuild.org for material such as the prayer cards that will help people become engaged and pray for his cause on a widespread basis.
Plans for Premiere and More
“We hope to have this ready to go to distribution the first quarter of next year,” Phillips added enthusiastically. Naturally, the premiere will be on EWTN television. “It’s a lot of money for us, and our donors have been unbelievably generous.”
Yet funds for the final phase of filming are still needed despite the generosity those already donating. Anyone can help out by sending a donation for the film to the Father Vincent Capodanno Guild, PO Box 29424, 1025 Michigan Avenue N.E., Washington, D.C., 20017. Or they can donate so using the official website CapodannoGuild.org