Emil Joseph Kapaun was born to Enos and Bessie Kapaun in the small Bohemian (Czech) community of Pilsen, Kansas, on April 20, 1916. That year, the day marked Holy Thursday, when the Catholic Church commemorates the Lord's Supper and the institution of the priesthood and the Eucharist, both of which would become central to Kapaun's life.
Emil spent his childhood helping his family on the farm, going to school, and attending services at St. John Nepomucene Church in Pilsen, where he heard his calling to become a priest.
Emil moved to Conception Abbey in Missouri to complete his last two years of high school, and in 1932 began his seminary studies for the Diocese of Wichita there. During his four years he completed a track in philosophy, as well as general education studies.
In September of 1936, Emil began his Theology studies for the priesthood at Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. Kapaun is the second from the left in the back row.
Emil Kapaun was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Wichita by Bishop Winkelmann at Sacred Heart College Chapel (Newman University), Wichita, KS on June 9, 1940. Shortly after, he celebrated his first Solemn Mass of Thanksgiving at his home parish in Pilsen. Until 1944 he served in his home parish and at Herington Air Base.
After serving the soldiers at Herington Air Base, Father Kapaun became interested in becoming a full-time chaplain for the soldiers fighting in World War II. In the summer of 1944 he received permission and completed Army Chaplain School at Ft. Devens, Massachusetts.
Chaplain Kapaun was sent to troops in India and Burma. This was at the end of World War II. Although he did not see any fighting, Kapaun traveled many miles over the rugged terrain to say mass for the troops, and he also assisted the Columban missionary priests in serving the locals. Kapaun is the second from the right.
After the war, Bishop Winkelmann requested that Father Kapaun continue his studies at the Catholic University in Washington, D.C. He earned his Master’s Degree in Education, writing his dissertation on the accreditation of religious classes in secondary schools. In the picture, Father Kapaun is taking a break from studies and is using his usual mode of transportation.
From April to September, Father Kapaun serves as Pastor at Holy Trinity Parish in Timken, Kansas, another predominantly Bohemian community. In September, he re-enlisted as a Chaplain in the Army to help ease the shortage of Catholic Chaplains, stating "I have grown to love these people very much; but, in conscience, I believe I should offer myself for work in the Armed Forces, especially in this crisis."
By the end of 1948, Chaplain Kapaun was assigned to serve at Ft. Bliss, Texas.
Early that year, Chaplain Kapaun was sent to Japan to minister to troops who were still keeping the peace after World War II. In several letters he comments on how polite the Japanese people are, but at the same time how different their culture is than in the States. Here he is on the right on the ship to Japan.
On June 25, 1950, Communist North Korea invades Democratic South Korea. Two weeks later, on July 11, Kapaun's unit, the 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division are some of the first American troops sent to protect the South. He writes a short letter to Bishop Mark Carroll back home: "Tomorrow we are going into combat. I have everything in order, all Mass stipends, my will, etc. The way the Catholic soldiers are rallying around the priest is edifying."
During the fierce fighting, Kapaun quickly earns a reputation for being a fearless soldier who risked his life to minister to the men fighting on the front lines. Apart from saying mass and visiting and praying with men in foxholes, Kapaun would risk his life to administer the sacraments to the dying and to retrieve wounded soldiers. Numerous times Kapaun barely escaped with his life, including one time when a bullet hit the stem of his pipe when it was in his mouth.
In October of 1950, Kapaun and the US forces crossed into North Korea. Late on November 1st, All Saints Day, after having celebrated several masses for the troops, Kapaun and his unit were overrun by Chinese forces outside of Unsan, North Korea, who had entered the country to defend their Communist North Korean allies. Through the night and into the next day, Kapaun continually risked his life to bring many wounded men to safety, and eventually chose to stay with the wounded rather than retreat. He and the men were captured by the Communists, and were eventually forced to march 60 miles north to Prison Camp No. 5 along the Yalu River. Along the way, Kapaun is credited with saving numerous soldiers by helping to carry them and encouraged them to help each other survive.
Throughout his 7 months in the prison camp, Father Kapaun continues to devote himself to serving the physical, spiritual and emotional needs of his "boys". He shares his food with the sick and steals more so they do not starve. Using his skills learned on the farm, Kapaun molds pieces of metal into pots to boil snow into clean water for those suffering from dysentery and to clean their clothes. He and other soldiers pick lice off of those who cannot do it themselves. Kapaun would calmly refute the Communist soldiers when they tried to indoctrinate the men with their anti-American and anti-religious propaganda. At night, he would sneak around to other huts to encourage the men there and pray with them. On Easter he leads a prayer service for men of all faiths, reminding them that through the cross comes life.
Finally, at age 35, after suffering from a blood clot in his leg and pneumonia in his lungs, Father Kapaun is led away by his captors to the prison "hospital", where he dies alone and without treatment. Along the way, Father Kapaun asks the soldiers carrying him to stop so that he can forgive his captors and ask for their forgiveness. Before he goes, he encourages the soldiers to keep praying and keep up their hope, and he promises to pray for them from heaven. On May 23, 1951, Father Kapaun dies, but his memory and example inspire the men to keep fighting through their suffering. Coming to the camp after Father died, Major Gerry Fink, a Jewish airman, carves a 4-foot crucifix to help keep Kapaun's spirit alive. Finally, 2 1/2 years after Kapaun died, Captain Joseph O'Connor, Warrant Officer Felix McCool, and Captain Ralph Nardella carry the crucifix with them out of the camp to freedom, while they and others begin to tell the world of their heroic chaplain who offered his life for their sake.
After Fr. Kapaun's death in the prison camp, life went on for the other Prisoners. Ten of them, however, knowing of Kapaun's desire to donate some of his military earnings to those in need back in his home State of Kansas, vowed to create a memorial fund in his honor. Upon their release in 1953, they set to work. The fund was presented to Bishop Mark Carroll of Wichita to use for whatever need he thought would be fitting. Using the memorial as seed money, Bishop Carroll set to work gathering more money for an all-boy Catholic High School named in Kapaun's honor. In 1956, just 3 years after the prisoners were released, Chaplain Kapaun Memorial High School opened on the east side of Wichita. Staffed by Jesuit priests, the school sought to teach and inspire students to a life of service for Jesus Christ after Kapaun's example. The Prisoners saw it a fitting tribute, and Ralph Nardella, one of Kapaun's closest friends, testified to this fact:
"This school is a fitting tribute to this great man. If those who enter the school can only learn to reflect on the qualities that made Father Kapaun great, they cannot help but build a better America. The school itself is only a vehicle- it is the end product that will count, what comes out of the school."
In 1971 the school was consolidated with Mount Carmel Academy to become Kapaun Mt. Carmel Catholic High School. This school currently serves over 900 students and carries on Fr. Kapaun's mission to this day. More can be found at www.Kapaun.org.
The Archdiocese of the Military begins looking into Chaplain Kapaun's Cause for Sainthood. In 1993 they received the approval of the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops and the Vatican to begin work on the case. This means Kapaun could be given the title "Servant of God." Due to lack of personnel, however, work on the cause was put on hold indefinitely.
In 2008, the Diocese of Wichita, after years of initial deliberation, decided to take over the canonization efforts. On June 29th, Bishop Michael Jackels officially opend the Cause for Canonization at St. John Nepomucene Church in Pilsen. Although numerous materials and interviews had already been collected, much more information had to be gathered and a historical and theological panel from the Diocese had to conduct an initial review of the materials.
By 2011, the materials were ready to be shipped to Rome. The box, containing over 8000 pages of documentation, was officially sealed and sent to the Congregation for Saints. On site in Rome, our Postulator, Dr. Ambrosi, set to work sifting through the information and condensing it into a more-usable form- called the Positio- which would be given to the reviewers at the Congregation.
After years of work by former Prisoners of War and several Congressmen, the military and the President of the United States decided to award Chaplain Kapaun the Medal of Honor. This is the highest award for bravery in battle that can be given to a US Serviceman. Kapaun's heroic actions during the battle of Unsan on Nov. 1-2nd, 1950, and his continued care for the soldiers on the death march and in the prison camp were cited as the merit for this award. Fr. Kapaun's nephew, Ray Kapaun, was on hand to receive the award, as were 9 of Kapaun's fellow Prisoners of War, who attribute their survival to his assistance.
The Medal of Honor is a rare award. Only 3500 medals have been awarded in the history of the United States. Many of the awards are given posthumously due to the stringent requirement of "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty."
Click to view Fr. Kapaun's Award Ceremony
In November of 2015, after Dr. Ambrosi finished work on it, Bishop Carl Kemme of Wichita handed over the official story of Fr. Kapaun's life to the Congregation for Saints in Rome. Officially titled the "Positio Super Vita, Virtutibus et Fama Sanctitatis" (Statement on the Life, Virtue and Holy Reputation) of Servant of God Emil Joseph Kapaun, the "Positio", as it is often called, is the official stance of the Diocese of Wichita and all who support Fr. Kapaun's Cause that Kapaun indeed lived a holy and extraordinary life and is worthy of sainthood in the Church. At 1066 pages, it is a large document, and with over 1200 such cases, it will certainly take some time for the Congregation to review it. However, this is an important step in the process of Canonization, and things are progressing just as they should. Information about the alleged miracles is also being compiled and sent to Rome so that Kapaun's Cause may continue to progress. As Cardinal Amato. Prefect of the Congregation, told Bishop Kemme, it is our duty to continue to pray and tell Kapaun's story. Although we believe Fr. Kapaun is already in heaven, we continue to pray that God make this known to the entire Church!