By Christine Rousselle
The remains of Servant of God Fr. Emil Kapaun returned to his hometown of Pilsen, Kansas on Saturday, ahead of his formal funeral Mass on Wednesday, Sept. 29.
The arrival in Kansas marks the conclusion of a 70-year journey since Kapaun, a U.S. Army Captain and chaplain in both World War II and the Korean War, died in a North Korean prisoner of war camp at the age of 35. A private service will be held at his hometown parish in Pilsen, before a public vigil and funeral Mass will be celebrated in Wichita on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Afterwards, Kapaun’s body will be interred at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Wichita.
Kapaun’s remains were returned to the United States as part of the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement, but they were not identified until March. He had previously been buried with a group of 866 other “unknowns” at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.
His remains were formally returned to his family in a ceremony at Pearl Harbor, and a “send off Mass” was celebrated in Honolulu Sept. 23 ahead of his journey back to Kansas.
Born April 20, 1916 in Pilsen, Kapaun grew up on a farm. He was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Wichita June 9, 1940, and began at the U.S. Army Chaplain School at Ft. Devins four years later.
Kapaun was sent to serve troops overseas, and was promoted to Captain in January 1946. His first stint of active duty ended in July of that year, but he re-enlisted and returned to active duty in 1948 at Ft. Bliss.
In January 1950, Kapaun was sent to Japan as a chaplain in the 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division. In July 1950, they were sent to Korea. While in Korea, Kapaun regularly celebrated Mass, sometimes in the battlefield on the hood of a Jeep as a makeshift altar, and brought the sacraments to the troops. He was known for praying with troops in the foxholes and for his heroism in tending to injured troops–both his own and the enemy.
After a series of near-death experiences, including when his pipe was shot out of his mouth by a sniper and when his Mass kit and Jeep were destroyed, Kapaun took to carrying the Blessed Sacrament, confession stole, holy oils, and a Mass kit on his person.
He was awarded the Bronze Star for rescuing a wounded soldier despite heavy enemy fire. Kapaun was reportedly embarrassed and angered that news of his heroism was printed in newspapers back in Kansas. Kapaun and other soldiers were captured by communists in November 1950 during the Battle of Unsan. He and others were forced to march more than 60 miles to a prison camp in Pyoktong, North Korea. While in the camp, Kapaun would regularly steal food for his fellow prisoners, and managed to tend to their spiritual needs despite a prohibition on prayer. On Easter 1951, Kapaun celebrated Mass for his fellow prisoners in secret.
On May 23, 1951, Kapaun died after months of malnutrition and pneumonia. He was posthumously awarded the Legion of Merit and a Purple Heart, and in 2013 he was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama. Obama referred to Kapaun as “a shepherd in combat boots” who had been regarded by his fellow soldiers as “a saint, a blessing from God.”
His cause for canonization was opened in June 2008. He had been named a Servant of God in 1993. Presently, the Congregation for Saints is reviewing his cause and Pope Francis may declare Kapaun “venerable.”