The True Story of a Catholic Chaplain War Hero: Father Emil Kapaun’s Life and Legacy

With the news of the remains of Father Emil Kapaun now identified, this new book gives a glimpse into the life of this priest on the road to sainthood.

Father Emil Kapaun celebrates Mass using the hood of a Jeep as his altar on Oct. 7, 1950.
Father Emil Kapaun celebrates Mass using the hood of a Jeep as his altar on Oct. 7, 1950. (photo: Public Domain)

The Saint Makers

Inside the Catholic Church and How a War Hero Inspired a Journey of Faith

By Joe Drape

Hachette Books, 2020

256 pages, $24.99

To order:


Joe Drape tells a compelling tale in The Saint Makers. Indeed, the man is a fantastic writer, and his talent is on full display. 

This is especially so when it comes to telling the tale of Servant of God Father Emil Kapaun, a U.S. Army chaplain who died in Chinese captivity during the Korean conflict and whose remains have just been identified.

For instance, discussing Father Kapaun’s early life and decision to become a priest, he notes the priest’s obvious, almost-movie-star good looks. But Father Kapaun “had no interest in breaking hearts; instead he wanted to swell them with the grace of God,” Drape writes.

Drape also relates, “Even as a novice [sic], Emil connected with people by being a doer rather than a talker,” a trait that would mark his entire priestly life.

While still a young priest, “Father Kapaun became the pastor of the parish that had harvested his vocation.”

Readers also learn,

“The Gospels especially were burned in his brain and offered him the only hero he was ever going to need: Jesus Christ.”

Similar nice and even beautiful turns of phrase perforate the text on a regular basis. 

The book is at its most compelling when recounting Father Kapaun’s story, including his experience as a POW.

“Father Kapaun was as shriveled as them, his jacket falling of his clothes-hanger shoulders, his belt cinched tight to hold up too-big pants. He smelled as bad as the rest of the prisoners of war. He hurt as much as them, too. Still, just a few minutes with him put steel in the boys’ bodies and a fire to live in their hearts. Father Kapaun, somehow, brought out the good that was left in the broken bodies and spirits to a place where they could see it.” 

Then there is the ostensible purpose of the book, telling what goes into the saint-making process. Here the book will likely prove eye-opening for the average Catholic who is unfamiliar with what it takes to get someone beatified or canonized. Drape does not give a deep dive into the process, but neither does he give short shrift to it. The typical reader will come away having learned something. 

Finally, there is the spiritual-memoir aspect of the book. Like all sincere Christians (and it is clear he is one), Drape is on a pilgrimage. Judging by what he writes here, he is growing in his faith, and his recounting of his journey is compelling, thought-provoking reading. 

Part memoir, part hagiography, part dissection of the Catholic Church’s saint-making process, Drape’s latest title is all surprise.

The biggest surprise is that this writer enjoyed the book as much as he did. Reading the first three chapters, one could easily be tempted to stop reading and dismiss the rest of the work. These beginning sections are filled with factual errors and the clear sense that Drape finds certain members of the faithful to be “fanatics”:

“The Hotzes had faith and were practicing Catholics, but were by no means fanatics. They went to Mass as a family on Sundays and abstained from meat on Ash Wednesdays and Fridays during the Lenten season, but otherwise offered no display of public devoutness.”

This sort of bewilderment that some would display “public devoutness” permeates much of the more personal aspects of Drape’s latest book. He also states that “early Catholics were far more inclusive than the modern Church,” but offers no proof for this apparent whopper of a statement. 

He demonstrates a disdain for Catholicism’s moral teachings. He goes on about how badly the Church has treated women. John XXIII “made Catholicism more modern and compassionate.” St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s “primary obstacle to sainthood was that she was a woman.”

As for errors, he calls Sts. Elizabeth Ann and Katharine Drexel “Sister Seton” and “Sister Drexel,” something this writer has never seen as a reference to women religious. It has always been Sister Elizabeth Ann or Sister Katharine. 

He calls the Code of Canon law a “Byzantine legal system.” It fits in one volume.

He says the Church is a multibillion-dollar operation. The Vatican budget is somewhere north of $320 million. Its endowment is said to rest around $1 billion. By comparison, that of the University of Notre Dame is $14 billion. Harvard has an endowment of $100 billion. 

As for errors, he calls an archdiocese a “diocese.” He writes it is unclear why St. Jude is the patron saint of impossible causes, whereas the answer is found via the early Church historian Eusebius and others sources.

These quibbles front load the book, however. After Chapter 3, while he sometimes lapses into factual error or questionable conclusions, it is a good read about Father Kapaun.

That this writer enjoyed the book after the expectations laid by the first three chapters is surprising. 

What was even more surprising is how Drape’s telling of these various tales produced tears. 

This is nowhere more true than his recounting of the two potential miracles attributed to Father Kapaun’s intercession. The first involves a young college student who endured an athletic injury that might have left him in a permanent vegetative state. The other also involves an athlete, a high-school soccer player. She was dying and no one expected her to live. Today, both are perfectly healthy, and medical science cannot tell us why.

As a parent of school-aged children, the second story was particularly tear-jerking. 

Joe Drape’s The Saint Makers won’t appeal to everyone. For those who do read it, however, it will be time well spent. 

B.K. O’Neel writes from West Virginia.