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Making a Home for Father Kapaun in Kansas

The remains of the Rev. Emil Kapaun, a revered chaplain and a candidate for Catholic sainthood, have returned home to Kansas, but not to his hometown of Pilsen. At a time when Kapaun’s prominence is growing, that’s a bitter pill for some residents of the Marion County hamlet of fewer than 100 people. But Kapaun’s descendants say the town isn’t ready for an influx of visitors retracing the courageous priest’s short life. What kind of leadership will it take in the years and decades to come to ready Pilsen and the surrounding region should Kapaun be canonized?

St. John Nepomucene Catholic Church has anchored the sleepy farming village of Pilsen for more than a century now, its steeple towering over the rolling Kansas prairie. Pilsen is a time capsule reflecting a far simpler time: Its church parking lot still nothing more than hard-packed gravel, a tiny gift shop on the corner about the only commercial business left on the town square, dusty round-topped gas pumps that haven’t worked in decades in front of a long-closed service station at the edge of town, a patch of prairie grassland nudging the south end of the church property.

The few dozen residents of this Marion County hamlet want to preserve it this way, even as untold thousands of tourists are expected to begin flocking to the region to pay homage to Pilsen’s most famous son.

The Rev. Emil Kapaun, who died at the age of 35 in a North Korean prisoner of war camp in 1951 and was awarded the Medal of Honor in 2013 for his bravery on the battlefield, is under consideration for sainthood by the Catholic Church for his selfless devotion to fellow soldiers in that primitive, desolate camp. In July, South Korea bestowed upon the chaplain its highest military honor, the Taegeuk Order of Military Merit.

Long thought to be interred in a mass grave near the Chinese border, Kapaun’s body was actually buried in Hawaii along with those of hundreds of other soldiers whose remains were brought home to the U.S. after the armistice that ended the Korean War.

His remains were identified last spring and returned to Kansas in September. His funeral, broadcast by EWTN, was the largest that Wichita had ever seen, “certainly in our lifetime,” says Scott Carter, director of the Father Kapaun Guild for the Catholic Diocese of Wichita.

His remains, which were 95% intact when retrieved from Korea, have been placed in a specially designed crypt in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Wichita – for the time being, at least. 

Kapaun was born and raised on a farm outside Pilsen, was ordained at St. John Nepomucene and spent his first few years as an assistant pastor at the imposing red brick church before serving as a World War II chaplain. Pilsen residents want his hometown to be his resting place, but his descendants decided against that – for now, at least.

“They’re not ready,” says Ray Kapaun, Emil’s nephew, who lives on Whidbey Island in the state of Washington. “They’re not even going to be ready for what’s going to hit them to start with, even with his remains not being out there.”

The decision to place the potential saint’s remains in Wichita, an hour away, rankles residents of Pilsen.

“They said security wasn’t so good out here,” says Kathy Svitak, whose farmstead carries traffic for those who depart Pilsen’s little cemetery via the  rear exit. “Well, I guarantee there’s a lot more crime around the Wichita church than there is out here. And we can put the same safe codes they could do. We just have not been given the choice of the chance.”

Pilsen residents even volunteered to provide armed guards for a tomb at their church, Ray Kapaun says, but that was dismissed out of hand.

An ongoing tension that residents and officials of the Diocese of Wichita must wrestle with is that as Kapaun becomes more revered, the more challenging it might become for Pilsen to deal with the roles and responsibilities that come with being his hometown. But too much change in Pilsen is unwelcome, too, because it could undercut the powerful story the town is able to tell about the chaplain’s life.

 

  • A pilgrim camping with a tent changes his shows near a small shed
    The pilgrimage to Pilsen is a test of body and spirit. A change of shoes, which Joe Spexarth of Colwich chose to do at the end of the first day, can help sustain both.
A Growing Interest

Reflections of the growing interest in Kapaun are already evident. Within just a few months of the priest’s remains being announced as identified by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in March, visitors had come from 17 different states to the makeshift museum at Pilsen. May, for example, was one of the busiest months ever for museum tours.

Kapaun’s body was exhumed from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in 2019.

The exhumation was part of a seven-phase plan begun in 2018 to identify all unidentified Korean War remains in the Hawaii cemetery.

Inspired in part by the stories of Kapaun’s selfless acts of caring for prisoners regardless of rank or background, the Catholic Church declared Kapaun a Servant of God in 1993. That step formally launched the cause for his possible canonization.

Following an exhaustive investigation of Kapaun’s life, the Wichita diocese presented 16,000 pages of documents and evidence to the Congregation for Saints in Rome, where his cause awaits review. Government-imposed lockdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic took effect the day before Kapaun’s cause was to be reviewed by the committee. A new date has not been set.

The congregation will use those documents to determine whether Kapaun lived a life of heroic virtue, after which he could be awarded the title Venerable. The Congregation for Saints must then approve a miracle attributed to Kapaun’s intercession for him to be beatified, or declared “Blessed,” one step short of canonization.

Among the thousands of pages of documents sent to Rome are three alleged miracles attributed to Kapaun: Chase Kear, who survived a horrific pole-vaulting mishap in 2008; Avery Gerleman, who recovered from a catastrophic illness in 2006 that doctors say should have killed her; and Nick Dellasega, who survived a cardiac arrest in Pittsburg in 2014. 

If Kapaun is declared Blessed, another miraculous healing that has no medical explanation must then occur and be approved by the Congregation for Saints before Kapaun is eligible to be declared a saint by the pope. The process could take years, decades or even longer.

Should the day come when Kapaun is beatified, diocesan officials say, a formal campaign will most likely be launched to raise money for a shrine. A decision on where the shrine would be built has not been made, Carter says.

Speculative architectural drawings for a visitors center in Pilsen were commissioned many years ago, but they did not include a tomb because no one anticipated that his remains would be recovered. New plans would be needed, Carter says.

“We have been hollering for years, ‘We need to get ready!’” says Harriet Bina, who conducts Kapaun tours in Pilsen. “I have never doubted for a minute that he was going to be declared a saint.”

 

Father Kapaun pilgrims walk through a field

The pilgrimage from Wichita to Pilsen covers about 20 miles a day for three days. Organizers point out that after Capt. Emil Kapaun and his fellow soldiers were taken prisoner in Korea, they were forced to march for three weeks to reach a prison camp. (Photo by Jeff Tuttle)

A Changed Equation

Ray Kapaun says he expected to hear his uncle had been declared a saint before he would be told the chaplain’s remains had been found and identified.

Now that those remains are back in Kansas, “that changes the equation,” says Randy Collett, the economic development director for the city of Marion, about nine miles south of Pilsen.

“How many thousands of visitors might we have to Marion County if and when the day comes where his remains are actually located here – and what needs to transpire in the period of time in between?” Collett asks.

Ray Kapaun and others expect pilgrims to flock to Pilsen and Marion County even while the chaplain’s remains are entombed in Wichita. Kapaun says he has heard Pilsen residents voice their fears that, because his remains aren’t in his hometown, “nobody’s going to come to Pilsen.”

“They don’t realize how many people are going to come to Pilsen,” Ray Kapaun says. “They’re still going to want to come out there and see where he was born and see where he worked and lived as a priest.”

They’ll want to see the church he grew up in and later celebrated Mass, the town he called home, and the farmhouse where he was born and raised a few miles away. That house has since been moved into Pilsen, though it has lost much of its white paint and is used as a storage site by its current owner.

It won’t just be Catholics drawn to Pilsen and the Sunflower State, either. His story can’t help but inspire those in uniform, says Todd Livick Sr., a communications specialist with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

“I’m just moved by what he brought to the table and what he went through,” Livick says of Kapaun’s bravery on the battlefield and selfless suffering in the POW camp while tending to and lifting the spirits of his fellow prisoners. 

“It’s incredibly humbling. I mean, it’s amazing: Somebody who can come from truly nothing, parents are immigrants, and he comes and all of a sudden becomes something.

“You have somebody who was willing to – duty, honor, country – give so much to what I’ll term as so many to make sure that they continue to live,” Livick says.

 

  • Inside St. John Nepomucene church in Pilsen
    This year’s pilgrimage from Wichita to Pilsen honoring the Rev. Emil Kapaun involved about 400 believers, who after three days of walking crowded into St. John Nepomucene for Mass. Bina of Pilsen told KMUW-FM that reasons for making the trek vary. For some, she said, it’s an act of devotion; for veterans, it’s a story of courage; for others, it’s self-exploration.
Traffic by Foot and Car

One sign of the growing interest in Kapaun was the number of people who signed up for this year’s annual pilgrimage honoring the chaplain. Organizers had to cut off registration at 400 for the four-day, 62-mile walk from Wichita to Pilsen. That number was the most in the 13 years of the pilgrimage, which pays tribute to the more than 80 miles Kapaun and other prisoners had to march from where they were captured to their POW camp along the Yalu River.

The final morning of the walk occurs on Father Kapaun Day, the first Sunday in June, along Pilsen Road stretching north from U.S. 56. The heavily patched ribbon of asphalt ripples through verdant farmland, its edges frequently eaten away by erosion as if the soil were a gnawing agrarian tide.

St. John Nepumocene is routinely packed with more than 600 people for Kapaun Day, with portable toilets set up to handle the crowds and homemade Czech foods available in the church basement. 

Such crowds are going to become more frequent, many say, particularly if and when Kapaun’s cause for sainthood gains momentum in Rome. A small group of local officials has begun meeting and brainstorming about how to best prepare for the expected crowds.

“The Pilsen roads are never going to handle that much traffic,” Collett says of the 23 miles of asphalt that lead into the tiny town. “So, then what do you do?”

The Marion County Commission has hired a consultant to explore how to best prepare for the increase in tourists. That includes working with state officials and recruiting hotel developers, commissioner David Mueller says.

Because Pilsen Road is a county road, it is not the responsibility of the Kansas Department of Transportation, says agency spokesman Tom Hein. Mueller and others wonder if surging traffic volumes may prompt a change to state maintenance.

State officials say they’re monitoring the situation in Marion County, but Mueller acknowledges local authorities are frustrated by what feels like a lack of support.

“I wouldn’t say we’re in over our head” in Marion County, he says. “We’re doing everything we can to prepare. It’s just hard to know how much to do, and what route is best.”

County officials hope the consultant will be able to clarify answers to those questions.

To save wear and tear on that road and preserve Pilsen, local residents and county officials alike favor a shuttle system that would provide parking in large lots next to U.S. 56 at or near Marion, where visitors could catch a shuttle bus. But officials know there will still be those who ignore the shuttles and drive directly to Pilsen.

What passes for a museum honoring Kapaun is actually the two-story brick rectory, built in 1924 to provide a place for the parish priest to live. It’s the house Kapaun lived in as assistant pastor for a few years following his ordination in 1940.

Though volunteers have done what they could – recently converting a back room into additional display space – only a few people are allowed in at a time because the house simply can’t accommodate more. 

Pilsen residents would welcome a new Kapaun museum, most likely built on land just south of the church that the Wichita diocese bought years ago in anticipation of such a need. Bina and others would like to emulate the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in rural Wisconsin, which has maintained its roots and rural flavor despite drawing 200,000 visitors a year. 

The Wisconsin site was only drawing a few thousand people a year – or about what Pilsen does now – as recently as a decade ago. That began to change when, after reviewing detailed research and investigation, the bishop of the Diocese of Green Bay declared in 2010 it was “worthy of belief” that Mary, the mother of Jesus, appeared to a Belgian immigrant named Adele Brise in 1859 at what is now the location of the shrine and instructed her to teach the children in the surrounding woods the tenets of the Catholic faith. Brise would traverse those woods on foot in a 50-mile radius teaching the children of the hard-working local families.

Interest in the Wisconsin site grew dramatically after the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops declared Our Lady of Good Help a national shrine, distinguishing it as the first and only Catholic shrine in the U.S. where the church believes the Virgin Mary appeared to someone.

The nearest city of any size is Green Bay, about 30 miles away. Pilgrims commonly stay at bed-and-breakfasts and eat at locally owned restaurants in the region, says Corrie Campbell, until recently the events coordinator for the shrine.

Lessons from how the Wisconsin shrine handled its growth could serve Pilsen and Marion County well, Campbell says.

“I think what we’ve learned is that it has to be a companion effort, in tandem with your surrounding community,” Campbell says. “Everyone has to have a very good respect for one another” and work together.

One example of that is helping pilgrims find places to stay or recommending places to eat. There’s a collegial spirit focusing on helping visitors have the best possible experience. About 200 volunteers help staff the shrine, with tour coordinators regulating how many people are on site at any particular time to preserve the tranquil environment.

Two basic themes drive decisions fueled by the demands created by the crowds, says Don Warden, the shrine’s chief operating officer.

“The first is recognizing that the peace and tranquility that so many pilgrims experience primarily comes from the presence of Our Lady and Our Lord in a special way, at this site chosen by heaven for whatever reason, and the encounter that happens between them and the pilgrims who visit,” Warden says. “We understand that as staff at the shrine there’s not a lot we can do to add to that encounter, so we focus on minimizing things that can distract from that encounter.” Secondly, they encourage a peaceful and contemplative disposition, especially near the more sacred spaces such as the Apparition Chapel and Apparition Oratory.

“Over time, we’ve addressed capacity constraints, as they appear, to ensure space for pilgrims while on the grounds,” Warden says.

They’ve also taken an active role in preventing commercial development near the shrine, “which is always a challenge in a place where large numbers of people gather,” he says. 

Protecting that rural tranquility has been key, Campbell says.

“That’s the charm and beauty of coming” to the shrine, she says. “Because people are looking for solace in their lives. They’re looking for a beautiful rural atmosphere to come and practice their faith and consider the miracles of their faith … and really just escape in some ways the wildness of the world. We find that that’s probably one of our best assets is that we’re charming. We’re country.” 

 

A 60-mile trek across parts of Kansas in the summertime involves casual dress and deportment. At a point distant from a confessional, the Rev. Eric Weldon met with penitent Gabe Jirak of Wichita.

Accommodations for Pilgrims

While hampered by the pandemic, religious tourism moves as many as 300 million people to travel to the world’s key religious sites worldwide every year, according to Faizan Ali and Cihan Cobanoglu of the University of South Florida. 

Devotion prompts some 600 million national and international religious trips, generating $18 billion in global revenues. As Pilsen and the surrounding area become a small example of one of those draws, it means thinking about providing accommodations to those making the pilgrimage. Wichita’s hospitality industry is well-positioned to handle the influx of people drawn to the area, says Susie Santo, president and CEO of Visit Wichita.

“We have both established relationships and hospitality programs in place to assist them with welcoming these new visitors to Wichita as the need arises,” Santos says.

However, any travelers that want to stay in Marion County to be near Pilsen will find the pickings slim at the moment. There are eight food outlets in Marion, and most are family owned and so small that “they have to pick and choose their hours to be open so they can actually survive,” says Tammy Ensey, who owns the Historic Elgin Hotel, one of two small inns in town.

“Tourists don’t understand that, especially tourists that are coming from larger cities, where things are open all the time,” Ensey says. “It is an honorable characteristic of a small town, but it’s not conducive to tourism.”

Ensey and her husband bought the Elgin five years ago with one eye on serving the people who would come to Pilsen to learn more about Kapaun.

“We had that in our business plan,” Ensey says. “We weren’t counting on that to succeed, but certainly it takes our occupancy to a new level.”

Ensey opened a restaurant, Parlour 1886, inside the Elgin, a 12-room hotel built of limestone that is on the National Register of Historic Places, to provide visitors another meal option, though it’s currently open only Thursday through Saturday nights because of staffing shortages. 

Efforts to attract a new hotel to Marion County have gained little traction, Collett says, because developers aren’t seeing sufficient traffic volumes on U.S. 56. 

Marion officials are courting a restaurant “that would be considerably larger than anything we have right now,” Collett says, but if it comes to Marion it won’t open until sometime in 2022.

Back in Wichita, the diocese will rely on volunteers and a new part-time employee to lead tours at the downtown cathedral, Carter says. The tours will be scheduled to avoid interfering with Mass.

“Our hope is that we can have a place where people can pray, can learn about him, learn about his time in the Korean War, what it meant and learn about the Medal of Honor,” he says. “And, obviously, most importantly, his sacrifice … offering of his life as a priest, as a chaplain, and his message of hope and faith.”

Pilsen will remain the caretaker of most of the information and artifacts about Kapaun, Carter says, but the hope is to have something available for those who come to the cathedral.

 

  • Text outlining key events in Father Kapaun's life
A Regional Impact

The impact of Kapaun’s prominence could reverberate well beyond south-central Kansas.

The Dodge City diocese is looking into creating a kiosk about Kapaun in Timken, where he served as parish priest for several months in 1948 before rejoining the military.

Holy Trinity was the only parish Kapaun served as pastor. In many ways, Timken is much like Pilsen: a Czech community small in numbers but great in faith, located about 130 miles straight west of Pilsen or about 140 miles west-northwest of Wichita.

Like Pilsen, Timken needed a priest who could speak Bohemian because English was the second language in both communities at the time. Unlike Pilsen, whose church inspires awe with its timeless beauty, Kapaun had to celebrate Mass and other sacraments in the basement of Timken’s church because fire had destroyed the upper part of the structure in early 1945.

On a rainy day in May of 1948, Kapaun was the celebrant for the only double wedding of his priesthood. One of those couples would one day become the parents of the author of this article, and their wedding photo graces a prominent place in the Kapaun museum in Pilsen.

The new Holy Trinity Catholic Church was completed in 1956 atop the old foundation, but other than updated appliances in its kitchen, the basement is essentially the same as it was when Kapaun was the parish priest. 

Acknowledging the return of Kapaun’s remains, the Diocese of Dodge City released a statement to The Journal saying, “Only God knows the spiritual import it will have for our area and the pilgrims who travel to trace the life of Father Kapaun. If and when that brings them to Holy Trinity, Timken, or any other place in our diocese, we welcome them and ask for their prayers.”

No one involved in the efforts to spread word of Kapaun’s holiness expects Wichita or Pilsen to attract the hundreds of thousands of people that flock to the shrine in Wisconsin. Not right away, anyway.

Still, Campbell says, carefully managed expansion is the key to success. And even as the Pilsen numbers begin to grow, local officials say, the focus has to stay the same.

“Of paramount concern is protecting the people of Pilsen, respecting their relationship with their native son,” says Mueller, the Marion County commissioner. “We need to make sure that we are very, very sensitive to the local people and their parish.

“One of the things that brings pilgrims is they want to walk in his steps,” he says. “That’s the theme of the (annual) pilgrimage. They want to see Pilsen as it was. They don’t want to see it as a commercial tourist trap.

“We’re working really hard and trying to come up with ways to bring people in and out and still maintain the character of Pilsen, so that when people come and want to walk in his footsteps, it’s similar to what it was (when Kapaun lived there) and not a bunch of concrete.

“You know, it’s still Pilsen.”

In truth, Carter says, Kapaun’s story has already grown beyond Pilsen.

“There’s a lot of me that wants to see his remains up there,” Carter admits. “I think it shares a lot about who he was and is very fitting, but I also understand why the family chose it to be here (in Wichita). 

“But I think for all of us involved, this is way bigger than any of us. This is the Holy Spirit spreading his story for a reason and impacting people. I think we just all have to be willing to do whatever is best for his story for the work of the Lord.”

Making a Home for Father Kapaun

A Virtual Discussion and Journal Launch Event Tuesday, October 26 | 6:00 – 7:30 PM Special thanks to media sponsor, KMUW, Wichita Public Radio at 89.1 FM. The remains of the Rev. Emil Kapaun, a revered chaplain and a candidate for Catholic sainthood, returned home to Kansas.

Cover of Journal about Father Kapaun

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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