Father Kapaun: home at last, remembering Newman roots

Sep 29, 2021
Father Kapaun

Father Emil Kapaun — who was ordained as a Catholic priest in St. John’s Chapel at Newman University and died as a prisoner of war in North Korea 70 years ago — has finally returned home to Kansas.

Kapaun’s long-awaited return

Thousands of individuals gathered to commemorate the life of this saintly man at a vigil held Tuesday, Sept. 28, followed by a funeral Mass on Wednesday morning. Both the vigil and funeral Mass took place at Hartman Arena in Park City, Kansas.

Newman students and staff attend the vigil for Father Kapaun at Hartman Arena.
Newman students and staff attend the vigil for Father Kapaun at Hartman Arena.

Of more than 6,000 people who filled the seats at Kapaun’s service, many Newman representatives played a part. Several seminarians from the St. Joseph House of Formation served during the vigil. The organ was played by Carol Pracht, pianist for Newman Chorale and Troubadours and organist for the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. 

A crew of eight Newman students attended the vigil and represented Newman Campus Ministry, along with several more staff and faculty scattered throughout the arena, one of whom was Newman President Kathleen S. Jagger, Ph.D., MPH.  

Participating in history

From the continuous line of priests and deacons filing into the arena to the chorus of voices singing together, Emily Simon, assistant director of campus ministry and the honors program, described the atmosphere as “beautiful.”

Emily Simon (far left) and students attend the vigil for Father Kapaun at Hartman Arena.
Emily Simon (far left) and students attend the vigil for Father Kapaun at Hartman Arena.

“This is a service that the church can do for Father Kapaun and for his family after all the things that he has done for us,” Simon said. “To send him off well with all of the official prayers, with the coffin and to show his family how many people support this cause … it was just really, really cool.”

Simon said it’s important to consider how many of the saints recognized by the Catholic Church came from seemingly unextraordinary circumstances and normal beginnings.

“The homily for the vigil was about how Father Kapaun was a normal person, which is something I think we all need to be reminded about,” Simon said. “A lot of times, even when they’re a saint recognized by the Catholic Church, what makes a person a saint is not necessarily their extraordinary nature, but God working through them to do extraordinary things.”

Representatives of Radio Free Asia interview Father Adam Grelinger about Father Kapaun in St. John’s Chapel.

Lasting impressions

In August, a group of eight Campus Ministry students took a pilgrimage to Pilsen, Kansas, to learn more about Kapaun’s hometown. One of their endeavors included a visit to St. John Nepomucene Catholic Church, Kapaun’s home parish.

“We specifically invited quite a few students who were not from Wichita and who maybe didn’t know as much about Kapaun,” Simon said. “So I was really excited for a couple of those students to just be really wowed by his story.”

Fast forward to Kapaun’s funeral procession, and Simon and the rest of the Campus Ministry party came within five feet of the coffin that shelters Kapaun’s remains — a true once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to go to Father Kapaun’s beatification one day, knowing that it’s a good possibility he will be a saint,” Simon said. “But how many people can say that they got to go to the funeral of a saint? That’s pretty cool.”

Following the funeral service at Hartman Arena, Kapaun, a declared “Servant of God,” was laid to rest via a horse-drawn caisson to a marble tomb at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Wichita, Kansas.

Gov. Laura Kelly declared Sept. 29 “Father Emil Kapaun Day” in honor of the Kansas priest and veteran. The Mass of the Christian Burial in remembrance of Kapaun can be viewed on YouTube.

Video: Mass of Christian Burial, Father Emil Kapaun.

Kapaun and Newman University

Like many present-day Newman students, Kapaun was taught by sisters of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ (ASC) — the same congregation that founded Sacred Heart College, present-day Newman, in 1933. 

St. John's Chapel at Newman University, 1940
St. John’s Chapel at Newman University, 1940

Kapaun took his priestly vows on June 9, 1940, in St. John’s Chapel at Newman under the same crucifix that hangs in the chapel today. The addition of a 12-foot by 4 ½-foot mural of Kapaun, painted by artist Wendy Lewis, was unveiled in August 2009 in St. John’s Chapel. 

A mural of Father Emil Kapaun by artist Wendy Lewis is located in St. John's Chapel.
A mural of Father Emil Kapaun by artist Wendy Lewis is located in St. John’s Chapel.

“Father Emil Kapaun left this chapel a changed man, leaving this chapel a priest, ordained to serve the Universal Church in the Diocese of Wichita,” Father John Hotze said in a homily at the Mass service before the mural unveiling in St. John’s Chapel.

Kapaun’s inspiring servant-leadership

The actions Kapaun took in the war camp leading up until his death in May 1951 — which included stealing food to help fellow prisoners, providing spiritual comfort and tending to the sick — garnered attention from authors, producers and playwrights inspired by Kapaun’s life.

Father Emil Kapaun offers Mass with a fellow soldier using the hood of his Jeep as an altar.
Father Emil Kapaun offers Mass with a fellow soldier using the hood of his Jeep as an altar.

In 2013, Wichita Eagle writers Travis Heying and Roy Wenzl published a book titled “The Miracle of Father Kapaun,” which was soon followed by a movie about Kapaun’s life, legacy and hopeful causes for his sainthood.

The Most Reverend Carl A. Kemme, Bishop of the Diocese of Wichita, declared a “Year of Father Kapaun,” which began June 7, 2015, and concluded with a closing Mass and dinner June 9, 2016. 

A world premiere of the play “The Miracle of Father Kapaun” was held at Newman in February 2017. The play, adapted by Anne Welsbacher from the award-winning Wichita Eagle series, commemorates Kapaun’s life and the possible miracles associated with him, including that of Chase Kear. A recording of the play can be viewed on YouTube.

Chase Kear, center in blue shirt, and other Kear family members attended a performance of the play. Student Blake Lee, in golden T-shirt, portrayed Kear in the play.
Video: Newman Theatre Presents “The Miracle of Father Kapaun.”

Father Kapaun: A legacy of love and sacrifice

Every Memorial Day weekend, Americans all over the country honor individuals who serve in the United States military and those who have lost their lives while serving our country.

Father Emil Kapaun is one of those individuals. He is especially connected to the Newman community and the greater Wichita community. Those who aren’t familiar with Kapaun may wonder why the community seems to have such a fascination over the work of one priest?

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