The Church That Nourished the Faith of Father Kapaun
St. John Nepomucene Church is a sacred space in the Sunflower State.
On Sept. 25, 2021, St. John Nepomucene Church in Pilsen, Kansas, welcomed home its native son, Father Emil Kapaun, who died a martyr on May 23, 1951, in Chinese prison camp No. 5 in North Korea. His remains were not identified until March 2021. Now, he had come home briefly to the town and church in which he grew up. He is interred in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Wichita.
Born on Holy Thursday in 1916, he was baptized shortly after in the new St. John Nepomucene Church, which opened only a year earlier. He made his first confession, first Holy Communion and confirmation at this parish. He was the first son of St. John Nepomucene’s to be ordained a priest. He celebrated his first Mass here and then was assigned to this church as its new assistant priest and later administrator. Now home, the faithful come to pay their respects.
Although St. John Nepomucene has changed on the inside over the years, much remains that Father Kapaun would recognize, including some vestments he once wore that are now on display in the Father Kapaun Museum located in the original rectory where he lived until he became a military chaplain in World War II. The many visitors from around the country who come to this church and museum to learn about Father Kapaun or pray for the Servant of God’s intercession have a tangible connection with this heroic chaplain whose cause for canonization officially opened in 2008.
The church’s main altar is the same one on which Father Kapaun celebrated Mass many times. Below the centered tabernacle, a rendition of the Last Supper exquisitely carved in large relief appears in beautifully colored detail. The altar and reredos are carved of wood. While in Father Kapaun’s years the wood was left natural, during the 2001-02 renovations, they were painted white, which brings out the beauty of the intricate carvings on the reredos right up to the top of its triple gothic towers. These towers, with their filigreed spires, are set at angles that emphasize the overall Gothic design. Plentiful gold gilding enhances the beauty of the reredos by highlighting the abundance of filigrees and crosses.
The large central tower of the reredos includes an arched and canopied shrine that holds a statue of St. John Nepomucene. The Bohemian saint is shown depicted with a finger to his lips. The pose speaks to this saint’s patronage: He is the patron of confessors. As confessor to the queen of Bohemia, he would not break the seal of confession when the king demanded to know what she said. For his silence, the holy priest was thrown in the Moldau (Vltava) River and drowned.
To either side of this saint’s statue, slightly smaller shrines in their lacelike towers honor, on the right, our Blessed Mother, shown crowned as Mary Victorious, and on the left, St. Agnes of Bohemia, shown wearing the habit of a Poor Clare; the crown at her feet shows she gave up her royal position for Our Lord.
Born in Prague to the king of Bohemia, she was promised to marry King Henry III of England. She asked the pope to intervene because she wanted to be consecrated to Christ. Henry assented to her decision. She founded a Poor Clare monastery, and St. Clare personally wrote her a number of times. Related to St. Elizabeth of Hungary, Agnes is one of Bohemia’s patron saints.
The blue-painted gothic-arched walls and ceiling of the apse suggests the great love for our Blessed Mother in this church community. The wall behind the reredos was also filled during the last renovation with a pattern of golden fleur-de-lis. And in the apse ceiling, there now appears a mural of the Holy Spirit hovering high above the altar and the sacrifice taking place on it.
On either side of the sanctuary, the shrines look like the main altar, with their triple filigreed-ornamental spires, but on a slightly smaller scale. To the right, the main spire’s shrine honors a loving St. Anne with her Child Mary appearing in a large statue. To the side are statues of St. Joseph and the Immaculate Heart. A tall, colorful statue of the Sacred Heart, depicted with arms outspread in welcome, appears in front of this shrine.
Something very rare appears under the St. Anne altar — a rendering of the tomb of Christ with a nearly life-size statue of Jesus reposing in the tomb — a favorite spot of contemplation for tours, explained Harriet Bina, director of the Father Kapaun Museum.
On the opposite side of the sanctuary, the matching side shrine presents an image of St. Wenceslaus. In the slightly smaller shrines to his side there is a beautiful statue of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, holding a lamb over his shoulders, and another of St. Anthony. Wenceslaus is not only the good king of the Christmas carol but was a 10th-century king of Bohemia. He is the patron saint of the Bohemians and the Czech Republic. Fittingly, his feast is Sept. 28, a day falling within the time Father Kapaun was at his parish on Sept. 25, 2021, and the following days when he was brought to Wichita for his official funeral on Sept. 29.
St. Wenceslaus was the name of the church when the first edifice was built in 1888. That frame building constructed by the early Bohemians arriving here was replaced with a second edifice and then a third — named St. John Nepomucene Church. Dedicated on Sept. 18, 1915, today’s beautiful brick Gothic revival church was ready to welcome the parishioners who came to farm these Kansas plains. The farm of Father Kapaun’s parents, Enos and Elizabeth (Bessie), was only 3 miles away.
The Bohemian heritage is also reflected on the church’s façade: statues honor the two brothers Sts. Cyril and Methodius, called the “Apostles to the Slavs.”
Indeed, some of the first-stained glass windows the faithful see on entering the church show the “parishioners’ strong religious ties to their native country,” Bina said. Among them appears St. Wenceslaus and his grandmother, St. Ludmila, depicted teaching him the faith; Cyril and Methodius bringing Christianity to the Slavic people; and the baptism of Ludmila’s husband, Borivoj, the first Bohemian prince to become Christian.
The many windows, which also include biblical scenes such as the Nativity and the Resurrection, were made at the turn of the 20th century by the Munich Studio in Chicago, whose founder had studied in Germany. With ornamentation and realistic facial expressions for figures, the windows are very much like the classic German windows favored at that time.
As new pastor in 1953, Msgr. Arthur Tonne was concerned about how the windows would weather — literally, given the area is prone to tornadoes. But over the years, any tornado “lifted over the church,” Bina said, attributing the help to “Father Kapaun [who was] a very good baseball player.”
Much that was removed over the years was saved and repurposed when renovations took place. For example, the doors of the original Communion rail carved with images of the Sacred Heart and Immaculate Heart became the front and rear of the new freestanding altar done in 2001 to match the rest of the church. While years ago the original Communion rail was removed, one a little shorter but now spanning the sanctuary has been restored.
The original Stations of the Cross, beautifully sculpted reliefs and framed in outstanding carved gothic frames that echo the triple spires and lacelike design of the reredos, were repainted.
Speaking of originals, people coming to the church and museum also learn the holy water fonts have been in all three churches, as has the baptismal font. Along with all the Pilsen parishioners, Father Kapaun and his brother Eugene were baptized in this very font. And the tall cross attached to the pew at the front of the church is the heavy processional cross that Father Kapaun carried as an altar boy and was used at his first Mass and again at his funeral in 2021.
At the rear of the nave, by the Seventh Station, there is a memorial to Father Kapaun — whom the men in the prison camp saw as another Christ for his selfless help and encouragement. It includes a photo of him in his chaplain’s uniform, some paintings and two crucifixes. The museum in the old rectory displays many personal effects and artifacts of this saint-in-the-making.
Among them are the paten and burse he used at his first Mass and his paten used at his funeral Mass in Pilsen. (His official funeral took place later, in Wichita, 72 miles away.) Several beautiful vestments on display include a chasuble and cope that he wore. Bina pointed out that his mother Bessie did the beautiful crochet work all around the edges of his surplice.
Among the displays are religious objects and statues from the Kapaun home, photographs of him and the family, his grandparents’ trunk when they emigrated to America that contained china that was used at Eugene’s wedding and pictures that Emil sent to his mother from Japan with depictions of the Sacred Heart done in Japanese style, and another of the Holy Family done Chinese style. Near these cases is the portable confessional with folding kneeler that Father Kapaun used in church to hear the confessions of the schoolchildren.
Another room contains personal effects given by his brother Eugene and wife, Helen. Among them are the footlocker Father Kapaun left in Japan (he went to Korea with only a duffle bag) and two cabinets filled with items that were sent back to his parents two years after he was declared dead. As Bina said, “The footlocker finally arrived on a Good Friday.”
On display, too, is Chaplain Kapaun’s Medal of Honor, which was awarded posthumously in 2013. Bina said he gave one of the men in the prison camp his small gold pyx and told him, “Take this back to my bishop and tell him I died a happy death.”
While he was among the 1,500 men who died in Prison Camp No. 5, Bina emphasized that the least number died from the many, many men with whom Father Kapaun was able to pray with, inspire, tend to their wounds, and keep full of hope. It is a noble legacy for one of Pilsen’s and St. John Nepomucene’s own.
Father Kapaun, pray for us!