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Fr. Emil Kapaun, Servant of God

With two boys, it was important to know which saints were soldiers, so when All Saints Day came around, they could wear costumes that had armor and weapons. One year, my oldest son requested to be a saint that wore camo. He had a cool camo army jacket, and thought this would be a great way to show it off. I was not even sure there were saints who wore camouflage. I was familiar with the earlier saints with armor-St. Michael, St. Martin of Tours, St. Wenceslaus, St. Eustace, St. Ignatius of Loyola (pre conversion), St. Francis of Assisi (prior to changing his ways) and others, but a modern day soldier saint?? So I researched and discovered Servant of God Emil Kapaun, not yet canonized, but in the process. The Diocese of Wichita is compiling information for his cause of sainthood.

Fr. Kapaun was an Army chaplain who had become a prisoner of war. Even better, he was American and from Kansas. We lived in Colorado at the time, so it felt like finding someone next door! He had served in WWII and Korea. Every account about him spoke about how he brought Christ to the men with whom he served. He was eventually taken prisoner and sent to a POW camp, where he ultimately died of a blood clot and pneumonia.

His Ministry as a Priest

Ordained in 1940, Kapaun was a priest for the Diocese of Wichita. He had originally thought of becoming a missionary priest, but discerned that the diocesan priesthood was where Our Lord wanted him. He began his military career when he was appointed the auxiliary chaplain at the Army Airbase in Herington, Kansas. After returning to parish life, Fr. Emil asked his Bishop to return to army service and Bishop Winklemann agreed and recommended him to the US. Army Chaplain Corps in July 1944. He served the troops at the end of World War II in Burma and India. Eventually, he was stationed in Japan with the 1st Cavalry Division. His division was one of the first units sent in after the North Korean Army attacked South Korea.

His service rose above that of soldier and priest. Besides providing the sacraments to “his boys,” Fr. Emil risked his life on a regular basis to bring back wounded soldiers, administer last rites and bury the fallen. His attitude kept the morale high among the soldiers and his inner peace comforted them. On November 2, 1950, after a night of intense fighting, he was captured. Again, his care of his fellow POWs went above and beyond. He tended to them all, caring for the sick, making sure all had clean water, food, and clothing in addition to meeting their spiritual needs, no matter what their faith. Fr. Kapaun felt it his responsibility to help the men make it out of the prison camp alive. He gave hope to the other POWs even through daily torture. When he became seriously ill, the Chinese demanded he be moved to the hospital. The men demanded to carry him there. They knew the hospital was simply a place their captors sent prisoners to die. Fr. Kapaun died a few days later but his spirit of hope and kindness carried on among the other prisoners, several of whom made it out alive. Their stories of Fr. Kapaun’s heroic actions earned him the Distinguished Service Cross which was later upgraded to the Medal of Honor, the highest award given to a member of the Armed Services.

Return to Kansas

Recently, his name has been in the news a lot. At the end of the war, remains from Korea were returned and buried in the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii in the 50s. Not all the remains were able to be identified, but the US Department of Defense Pow/MIA Accounting Agency received permission to dig up the remains and try to identify them via DNA testing. Scientists were able to verify which remains were Fr. Kapaun’s. After a procession through downtown Wichita, the Diocese of Wichita interred his remains at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in September and have plans to build a more elaborate mausoleum in the future.

I think it combines our nation and our faith quite well when we learn about these brave, faithful men of God who gave their life for God and Country. Kapaun first offered his life to God when he answered the call to become a priest. Next, he offered his life to his country as an Army chaplain, joining his brothers in arms at war. These soldier saints are a great reminder as we approach Veteran’s Day on November 11th to thank a veteran in your life. It is not an easy path and they must be willing to put their lives on the line for a country they love and people whom they have never met.

By: Cecelia Reynolds

The Story of Father Emil J. Kapaun,

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