Fr. Kapaun returns to Kansas after 70 years

Beatriz Moscoso, Assistant Editor and Chief

Father Emil Joseph Kapaun: the namesake of Kapaun Mt. Carmel Catholic High School. A selfless war hero. A devoted priest. Someone who countless people have looked up to for years on end, hoping for his remains to be found.

And now this prayer has been answered at long last. Fr. Kapaun has actually come home, and now rests in his tomb at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Wichita. He was found at the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii after a lengthy process of exhuming his remains and DNA testing. From the outside it may seem as if the process was simple, but there was a deep investigation that has been going on behind the scenes. People have been searching for Fr. Kapaun for seventy years. Those connected to the story say that this was not something they ever expected to happen, that it was a miracle he was able to be found at all. 

Ray Kapaun, nephew of Fr. Kapaun, initially doubted that Fr. Kapaun might have been found. 

“Originally I didn’t believe it,” Ray Kapaun said. “I actually thought it was somebody pulling a prank, or a scam call. I didn’t even pick up the phone when I first saw the number because it said ‘Fort Knox’ and I wasn’t thinking of Fort Knox military base. But I called them back and when they went through the details of identifying Father’s remains, I was really dumbstruck, because I never expected that. I would have expected him to be declared a saint than for someone to call saying they had identified his remains.”

Although many people know who Fr. Kapaun is, they may not really know his story, or the reasons for why he has received so much praise. 

Fr. Kapaun served in the Chaplain Corps during World War II as soon as he met the age requirement. He was then assigned to the First Cavalry Division in Japan. He and his group were sent out to defend South Korea from North Korea.

The thing about Fr. Kapaun that set him apart from his fellow soldiers, that made him the Servant of God that he is today, was his commitment to the POWs (prisoners of war) he was alongside. A heroic example: the Chinese army ambushed Fr. Kapaun’s group. He selflessly cared for wounded and dying men on the battlefield, even performing Last Rites. When he and his group were sent on a death march for 60 miles, he carried wounded soldiers on his back. At the prisoner of war camp, he was a beacon of hope; he stole food for the POWs, often risking punishment; he washed their dirty clothes; he prayed with them to boost their spirits. After a life of dedicating himself to others, Fr. Kapaun fell ill with pneumonia, after which he was moved to a “hospital” which the soldiers knew was actually just a “death house.” Before he was taken there, he told his fellow soldiers that he was ‘going where he’d always wanted to go.’ He said about the guards sending him to his death, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Fr. Kapaun died on May 23, 1951. This is according to the words of Col. Mike Dowe, Fr. Kapaun’s friend who was with him in the POW camps. Reverend Matthew Pawlikowski gave Col. Dowe’s account of the story on his behalf towards the end of the funeral mass. 

The welcome home of Fr. Kapaun included a vigil and rosary on Sept. 28, as well as a funeral and procession on Sept. 29 at Hartman Arena. Bishop Carl Kemme said the mass for the funeral, which over six thousand people attended. These people included but are not limited to priests of the diocese, military personnel, people who knew Fr. Kapaun personally, and students from various schools in the Diocese, including KMC and Bishop Carroll.

Ray Kapaun was amazed at the amount of people who came to the funeral, as well as the fact that it was happening at all. 

“Really it was a kind of numbness, realizing that this is actually happening, that it is actually true, that I’m not going to wake up and it was all going to have been a dream,” Ray Kapaun said. “I realized the impact that he’s had on so many people. When I gave my talk at the arena, I saw some six thousand people there and that’s just a fraction of the people that are touched by how [Fr. Kapaun] lived his life. I’m just awestruck at how many people hold him so dear. That’s what was going through my mind then.”