More than 140 people gathered at Newman on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, to pay special tribute to Father Emil Kapaun, the Kansas veteran whose story made history.
Award-winning journalist Roy Wenzl and photojournalist Travis Heying paired up to create the newly released documentary “Once Was Lost: The 70-Year Search for Chaplain Emil Kapaun,” which was shown to a live audience in the De Mattias Performance Hall at Newman.
The hour-long documentary tells the captivating story — and arguable miracle — of the discovery of Father Kapaun’s remains 70 years postmortem, and the process of laying his body to rest in his home state of Kansas. Heying and Wenzl traveled to seven states and the District of Columbia to collect the pieces of this story and spoke to countless individuals along the way.
“When you do these kinds of things, you become pretty self-aware that you’re in the middle of a part of history,” Heying said following the showing of the documentary. “That’s a thrilling feeling.”
Heying and Wenzl first captured stories of surfaced miracles through Father Kapaun’s intercession in the 2009 documentary, “The Miracle of Father Kapaun.” Eleven years later, Father Kapaun’s story has garnered attention throughout the world.
“Now this, of all those things, I never thought would happen,” Heying said. “I’m a vehicle to help deliver Father Kapaun’s story, and that’s incredible.”
A familial connection to Father Kapaun
Among the inspiring, personal stories captured through video and audio was that of Ray Kapaun, Father Kapaun’s nephew.
Ray was born in 1957, and never got the chance to meet Father Kapaun, who passed away in 1951.
“For me growing up, I saw Father Kapaun as a hero and potential saint — something unattainable that I could never quite wrap my arms around,” Ray said.
When Father Kapaun earned the Medal of Honor in 2013, Ray accepted it on his behalf at the White House. Now, eight years later, when Father Kapaun’s remains were identified and the process of bringing him home to Kansas took flight, Ray was there for every step of the journey.
“Now, when I get on my knees and pray, I see him as a friend and it’s just like having conversations with my uncle,” Ray said.
Heying reflected, “As I’ve done this story, I’ve learned that preserving Father Kapaun’s legacy is the most important thing to Ray, to Father John Hotze and to the POWs who served with him in Korea.”
Continuing Father Kapaun’s legacy
A question and answer session with Ray, Heying and Wenzl followed the live showing of the documentary. One attendee asked the question, “As a current student of Kapaun Mt. Carmel Catholic High School, what can we do to best live out Father Kapaun’s legacy?”
The answer came from Ray, who said it is in knowing the story of Father Kapaun inside and out and sharing it with others that individuals of any age can “pay his service forward.”
Wenzl explained that Father Kapaun wasn’t just “some guy” who served in the Korean War. Father Kapaun was known for giving away his food when he was starving in order to prevent soldiers from stealing from each other. He also regularly offered help with duties like digging latrines and fox holes, among countless other acts of selfless service. Father Kapaun never shied away from inviting other soldiers to pray with him, regardless of their religious background.
“That was the extent of it — he would hardly even mention that he was a chaplain,” Wenzl said. “He was witnessing his faith by action and not by preaching. My point about all this is that if people treated others the way that he did, the world would be a better place. We’d all be better and happier people.”
The storytelling opportunity of a lifetime
In his 47 years of storytelling as a journalist, Wenzl said the story of Father Kapaun is the “most sublime.”
“I’ve been so very lucky and in the right place to get to help share it,” Wenzl said.
Ray shared Wenzl’s sentiments, and described himself as “a true believer of ‘there’s no such thing as coincidence.’”
“I’m grateful that I actually got to be a hands-on part of the story of Father Kapaun,” Ray said. “For the longest time, our family didn’t really know his story. And now, to not only be able to know him, but also to carry him to his resting place — it’s just a whole different outlook on things.”
Every hour that Wenzl and Heying have invested in Father Kapaun’s story has helped seal his legacy and that of his fellow POWs into place.
“Travis and Roy are amazing and I can’t thank them enough,” Ray said. “And the timing of it all …. every day feels like Thanksgiving right now. That was beyond anything that I could have ever, ever, ever expected.”
Watch the full hour-long documentary, “Once Was Lost: The 70-year Search for Chaplain Emil Kapaun” at Kansas.com.