Long before becoming a priest, a prisoner of war, a leader of the faith, and a Servant of God, Emil Kapaun was just an ordinary boy in the small town of Pilsen, Kansas.
My family on both sides, the Jiraks and the Tajchmans, would share stories about our hometown’s favorite son. I am among the latest generation to hear and pass on the stories of a holy life. My grandma Teresa Tajchman had great esteem for her former parish priest, Msgr. Arthur Tonne, who authored the first biography of Father Kapaun, The Story of Chaplain Kapaun, Patriot Priest of the Korean Conflict. I remember seeing Msgr. Tonne’s book about Father Kapaun on my grandma’s table, where she would keep her rosary, holy cards and important letters.
It was clear that Father Kapaun held a special place in her heart and that she held him in high esteem, along with most Catholics in the neighboring area and in the hearts of many in our community. Even though his life and story preceded mine, I feel like I know him well through the stories and memories that have been passed down through my family and community.
Kapaun worked along his family in farming, participated in small-town living, and was an active member of his church, St. John Nepomucene, where he would later preside as priest. This is also the church that my great-grandfather Francis helped build, where my parents were married and my grandparents were buried, and where I grew up going to Mass every Christmas, holiday and family visit.
Many people in the community have ties like these to the church, and, in turn, to its local hero, Chaplain Kapaun. Growing up in this part of Kansas was a distinctive experience. Pilsen was a Czech settlement town, and the original residents taught themselves to farm on land that was difficult and unforgiving. The migrants held tightly to their roots.
Ron Jirak, Pilsen native and my uncle, spoke at length with Father Kapaun’s childhood friend, Edmund Steiner, about Father Kapaun before Steiner passed away in 2018. And my uncle in turn shared his memories with me. Steiner lived near the Kapaun family and would walk to school with Emil.
Steiner recalled a story about the future chaplain that involved their work on their farms. One day, when both farms needed water, Steiner and Kapaun challenged each other to see who got to water fastest. After several days of digging roughly 19 feet into the ground, Kapaun was victorious. Steiner also said that Kapaun was a perfect student and never in trouble. The two boys even skipped a grade together. The young Kapaun wanted to be a priest from an early age.
Leo Jirak, my grandfather, went to school with Father Kapaun. Jirak was a year younger and wasn’t in the same class, but shared with the family one memory. One day, a local wedding had cleared out all the classes, with only two students left in the entire school: Father Kapaun and Grandpa Leo.
Dennis Tajchman, my great-uncle, would also share a memory of an encounter he had with the future priest. While Tajchman was a young student in Pilsen, then-seminarian Kapaun would occasionally visit the school when he came home to visit. While Kapaun was in his classroom, Dennis sat in his desk, doodling absentmindedly, ignoring his lesson. Kapaun teasingly tapped his fingers and kindly indicated for him to pay attention.
The people of Pilsen did not see him as a hero; that came much later. Instead, he was just their humble priest. Dr. Eugene Vinduska, 93, served as an altar boy for the priest. Vinduska saw Kapaun everywhere, including at his school.
“He would play soccer with us when he came home from the seminary,” he told the Register.
“He was a plain, old farm boy. His parents were a poor family, but very good people. That was as fine a family as you could find, and they produced a good boy. I want him to be known.”
St. John Nepomucene Church also wants the story of Father Kapaun to be known. The church welcomes visitors and pilgrims to tour the church and the Father Kapaun Museum, located next to the church. The Wichita Diocese’s annual Father Kapaun Pilgrimage, also called the “Kansas Camino,” is taking place June 1-4; pilgrims are invited to walk 60 miles together to Pilsen to learn more about this heroic hometown priest whose holy example and wisdom lives on.
As he advised: “Pray hard, receive the sacraments frequently, and above all give good example.”