Throughout history, men of extraordinary character were noticed by others, and their stories have been told and retold. How much would we know about Jesus today, had his disciples kept silent about their heaven-sent teacher’s life on earth and how he died on the cross?
No one had heard of Father Emil Kapaun, an American Catholic priest from the farming village of Pilsen, Kan., who died in a lice-infested, icy-cold North Korean prison, Camp No. 5, along the Yalu River on May 23, 1951, until September 1953, when his prison inmates were repatriated to the South after the war ended.
They told the reporters about their chaplain who cared for his American brothers more than himself by washing foul smelling, blood- and pus-soaked bandages, by picking lice from the sick and helpless and by encouraging everyone to hang on and to have faith in God when dying was an easy alternative.
One of the POWs, Col. Gerald Fink, a Jew, had never met Kapaun but heard so much about him from his inmates that he carved a 4-foot-tall wooden crucifix and carried it with him to his freedom, delivering it to Kapaun’s parents, Enos and Bess Kapaun in Pilsen.
Kapaun was honored in 1957 when Kapaun Memorial High School was constructed by the Wichita Diocese, which merged into Kapaun-Mount Carmel High School in 1973. In front of St. John Nepomucene Catholic Church in Pilsen, where Kapaun served four years — three years as associate pastor and one year as pastor — stands the statue of Kapaun aiding an injured soldier, and many visitors come there to pray and pay homage to the selfless servant of God.
In April 2013, President Barack Obama awarded him the Medal of Honor, the highest U.S. military decoration granted to a member of the armed forces for gallantry and bravery in combat.
Locally, during the Veterans Day 2013 ceremony at the Korean War Veterans Memorial at Lowell and 119th Street in Overland Park more than 800 attendees — veterans, their supporters and guest speakers — witnessed the unveiling and dedication of Kapaun’s new panel. Abbot Gregory Polan of Conception Seminary College, where Kapaun studied for four years, blessed the crowd and the panel.
And on Aug. 1, Kapaun will be honored again, this time, by the representatives of Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, including a local neurosurgeon at the University of Kansas Medical Center, Paul Camarata.
Camarata had read about Kapaun extensively, watched on TV the ceremony in the East Room of the White House when Obama awarded the chaplain with the Medal of Honor, and he even visited the priest’s boyhood home and “was particularly intrigued about the Vatican investigation into a recent miracle in Wichita after a family prayed for Fr. Kapaun’s intercession.”
While in Korea, from July 10 and before his capture on Nov. 2, 1950, Kapaun often celebrated Mass on the hood of his own military Jeep in the battlefields while bullets whizzed by and bombs exploded near him. His acts of courage and faith in God so inspired his admirers that more than six decades later, on May 9, 2013, a Korean-American priest, Fr. Paul Lee, the pastor at St. Jude in Rockville, Md., celebrated a Jeep Mass at St. Jude parochial high school for the first time in the U.S.
Here in Kansas, at Prairie Star Ranch in Williamsburg, Kan., on Aug. 1, former Army chaplain and Iraq War veteran the Rev. Peter Jaramillo, who now serves as the pastor at Holy Family Church in Kansas City, Kan., will say Mass on the hood of a Jeep, and the Rev. Jerry Spencer of Curé of Ars and the Rev. Anthony Ouellette of All Saints Church will also celebrate. And this event will be held in conjunction with a youth summer camp for both middle and high school students, their families and religious leaders, and everyone is invited. Expected guests include local Korean War veterans, Korean-Americans, and representatives of Kapaun’s cause for sainthood.
The bishop of the Wichita Catholic diocese, the Most Rev. Carl A. Kemme, declared “A Year of Father Kapaun.” June 9 marked the 75th anniversary of Kapaun’s ordination to priesthood; April 20, 2016, is his 100th birthday, and May 23, 2016, is the 65th anniversary of his death in North Korea. And the Jeep Mass will give attendees a chance to reflect on the Korean conflict 60 some years ago that took 3 million lives, including 54,000 Americans.
Although Kapaun is on the path to sainthood today, I can’t envision him in a majestic saintly robe. Rather, I see him in a worn Army fatigues and boots and foraging heavenly food for ill-nourished, troubled souls who might fall through the gate of hell.
I have no doubt that Kapaun himself will be present at the Jeep Mass at Prairie Star Ranch on Aug. 1 and make himself known to those who will gather there.
Retired musician and freelance columnist Therese Park has written three novels about Korea’s modern history.