There are at least two stories about how the Rev. Emil Kapaun’s name came to be said in two different ways. But since the revered chaplain was awarded the Medal of Honor in 2013, the Ka-PAWN pronunciation that the priest himself would have used is growing in prominence, even if CAPE-un is unlikely to stop passing the lips of south-central Kansas residents used to saying it a different way any time soon.
Callers who reach Scott Carter’s voicemail at work may be tempted to listen to his pronunciation on the recording more than once.
In a matter of seconds, the coordinator of the cause for sainthood of the Rev. Emil Kapaun pronounces the priest’s name two different ways. Ka-PAWN and CAPE-un.
What’s going on there? The answer is simple – and complicated.
The priest, his parents and his brother all pronounced their family name Ka-PAWN, like the chess piece, says Ray Kapaun, the priest’s nephew.
One of Eugene Kapaun’s favorite stories about his brother was that, when Emil served as an auxiliary chaplain in World War II, the airmen at Herington Army Airfield liked to tease him that he wasn’t really a priest but a gangster in hiding because Ka-PAWN sounded so much like Capone, the infamous mob boss’s last name. The chaplain loved it, because the ribbing meant he had been embraced by those for whom he sought to provide encouragement and spiritual nourishment.
So where did the second pronunciation come from? The “unofficial official story,” as Carter puts it, is that when Cardinal Francis Spellman came to Wichita to dedicate a new Catholic high school in Kapaun’s name in 1956, he blurted out “CAPE-un.” No one dared correct the cardinal, so the name stuck.
Another version says Wichita Bishop Mark K. Carroll – whose name now graces the Catholic high school on Wichita’s west side – committed the blunder. Eugene Kapaun, who was a janitor at the school named for his brother, asked the diocese to change the pronunciation for years. Those pleas went unheeded.
Eventually, to avoid conflict, the Kapaun family adopted the same pronunciation as the school – which is why folks in his native town of Pilsen often insist that’s the right way to say it.
Kapaun died in a North Korean POW camp in 1951 at the age of 35, and stories brought home by those who were with him in the prison camp eventually led to the chaplain being awarded the Medal of Honor and the ongoing consideration by the Catholic Church for sainthood. When those same veterans visited Wichita to pay homage to a man they revered, they were baffled by the pronunciation of the school named after him.
Following careful research by White House staff, President Barack Obama pronounced the chaplain’s name Ka-PAWN at the Medal of Honor ceremony, and that is the version routinely heard outside the Wichita area. The correct pronunciation has begun to gain traction even in Wichita, though diocesan officials acknowledge it will be difficult to shake the other version because of the high school and its alumni base. Old habits are hard to break.
Ray Kapaun grew up using the school version because by then his family had given up the fight.
But after his uncle was awarded the Medal of Honor, he changed his pronunciation to match that of his father, uncle and grandparents. He realizes, he says, that it’s important to say the family name the same way his uncle did as he shares his remarkable life.
“I wouldn’t be walking my walk if I didn’t,” Ray Kapaun said in discussing the name in a 2014 story in The Wichita Eagle.
Addressing the pronunciation issue in the same story, the Rev. John Hotze, episcopal delegate for the office for Father Kapaun’s beatification and canonization, says the Wichita diocese figures to make the correct way of saying the chaplain’s name more of a priority should the Catholic Church one day declare Kapaun “Blessed” – or one step short of sainthood.
A version of this article appears in the Fall 2021 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.
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