From Kansas farm boy to saintly hero
© Diddle Publishing Co.
It was April 1916. Easter Sunday was just a few days away. In a little farm home, three miles southwest of Pilsen in east central Kansas, Enos and Elizabeth Kapaun were awaiting the birth of their first child. All was in readiness. The bed had been moved near the stove in the kitchen. There, on April 20 at 11:30 in the morning, the young couple welcomed their infant son into the world. It was Holy Thursday, a day of joy that commemorates the ordination of the first Christian priests. Was there some blessed omen in the birth of their first boy on this Anniversary of the Last Supper? The pious parents hoped so.
They were a simple, substantial, hardworking couple, whose deep Catholic faith had grown sturdy and strong, founded as it was in century upon century of flourishing Catholicism in Bohemia.
The new arrival on the Kapaun farm was baptized a few weeks after his birth. The church record has this entry in Latin: “On the 9th day of May, 1916, I baptized Emil Kapaun, born on the 20th day of April, 1916, the son of Enos and Elizabeth Kapaun (born Hajek). The godparents were John Melcher and Cecilia Melcher, his wife. Fr. John Sklenar.”
The religious foundation of these good people dates back to the 9th century when St. Cyril and St. Methodious brought the faith to the three Bohemian provinces of the Austrian Empire, Bohemia proper, Moravia, and Silesia. The seeds of this faith, so firmly sown by these missionaries, spread their roots down through the ages and eventually to the New World across the sea. Two heroic-sized stone statues of these apostles stand in niches on the front outside wall of the church in Pilsen, Kan. Pilsen is a tiny crossroads community 40 miles south of Abilene, the boyhood home of President Eisenhower.
By 1890, 46 Bohemian families had settled in Pilsen. The soil was fertile, but hard to work. The Santa Fe Railroad held much of the land, but was anxious to sell it, even at a low price, to the ambitious immigrants. Houses, barns, and fences had to be built; horses, wagons, and implements had to be secured. The railroad had much business and the settlers much strenuous labor.
To keep their faith alive, the pioneers gathered on Sundays in the “Beauty of the West” school under the leadership of Jacob Rudolph, who read from the Holy Bible, taught young and old from his book of Gospel Instructions, and trained the children in religious song. He made arrangements for a Catholic priest to come every Easter season, so that the people might receive the Sacraments. With his team of horses, he drove as far as Emporia, 60 miles east, to bring the priests out to Pilsen.
St. John Nepomucene, patron of the parish, was born in Bohemia about the year 1340 and takes his name from Nepomuk, his birthplace. He is the principal patron of Bohemia, where, in days of blessed memory, the people of that country prayed for his protection against floods and calumnies and for help in making a worthy confession.
A life-sized statue of this martyr priest stands above the high altar of the Pilsen Church. His right index finger is placed against his lips as a reminder of his sacrifice in keeping inviolate the seal of the confessional, the solemn and serious responsibility of the priest never to reveal a sin heard in the tribunal of penance.
The present imposing edifice was built in 1915. The very heart of the village is this towering Gothic church with its 120-foot steeple, visible for miles around. On the 10-acre parish plot are five buildings: the church, which seats 650, a rectory, a school, a combination hall and gym, and a convent. There is also a well-kept cemetery. About 175 families, mostly farmers, live today within the parish limits, that comprise an area of about 10 by 12 miles.
The village proper lists two filling stations, two grocery stores, and a post office. The west and north sides of the parochial plot are lined with a rim of simple but substantial dwellings, homes of widows who want to live as close as possible to the church. Five widowed grandmothers living north of the church meet every evening in the home of Grandma Reznicek to say their rosary in Bohemian.
The very first settler to arrive in the territory was Vit Franta, who inspected the land and gave a favorable report. On February 26, 1874, Jacob Vinduska and Mike Franta came with their families from Chicago.
Enos Kapaun was born in Czechoslovakia in 1880. He was of German and Bohemian ancestry. Among his treasured keepsakes is the passport issued to his family when they made the long voyage to America. Enos was then 7 years old. He likes to tell of that ocean voyage, the train ride to Florence, Kansas, and the wagon trek to Pilsen.
Elizabeth Hajek Kapaun was born 12 miles from Wakeeney, in Trego County, Kan., in 1895, of Bohemian parents. The Hajeks moved to Marion County when their little girl was 3 years old. On May 18, 1915, Enos and Elizabeth were married in the church at Pilsen by Father John Sklenar.
This pioneer priest, who later became monsignor, was pastor of Pilsen for 42 years. As a boy, Kapaun often remarked sometimes jokingly, sometimes seriously: “I want to be just like Father Sklenar.”
How did this Kansas farm boy become an idol, hero, and saint to men of every creed and calling? The elements are found in his home, his church, and his school.
His infant eyes fell upon holy pictures of all kinds and sizes still hanging on the walls of the Kapaun home. His infant ears heard daily prayers in English and Bohemian. His little hands were folded between the calloused palms of his father and the gentle fingers of his mother. From their deep and natural piety he caught what his mother thoughtfully expressed as his predominant characteristic, the trait that made him stand out, even as a boy: “He was always close to God.”
Holy cards, prayer books, religious magazines, and newspapers were always at hand. Before he ever learned to make out the words, little Emil indicated his later love for reading and study. He liked to look at holy pictures, especially when someone explained their meaning.
His mother recalls that, when he was only 6 years old, he caught a five-pound channel catfish. He was so excited that he ran all the way home, leaving pole, line, and fish near the bank. Mama and Daddy had to come and see his catch. But he had forgotten to anchor his fish; it had flipped back into the water!
His early prowess with a fishing pole is attested by a neighbor, Joe Meysing, who went fishing with his hired man in the creek near the Kapaun home. They had the best possible bait and fishing tackle. Little Emil happened to come to the same spot and joined them. The men felt sorry for the boy, who had no modern fishing equipment. Confidently, the lad dropped his line near the bank. In a very short time, he pulled out a beautiful 3-pound fish, took it off the line, smiled, and trotted home with his catch, leaving the experienced fishermen speechless.
One afternoon 7-year-old Emil was sitting on the bank, waiting patiently for a bite, when he noticed a long-legged kingfisher, strutting along a shallow stretch in the creek. That evening, seated at supper, he surprised his parents with this remark: “Mom, I saw a stork this afternoon and I asked him to bring me a baby brother.”
With a reminiscent smile, his mother adds: “A year later, the stork did bring him a baby brother.” Emil was 8 years old when his brother Eugene arrived on March 10, 1924. There were no other brothers or sisters.
His mother recalls, eyes misty with tears, the days when he was learning to serve at the altar. In spare moments, he hurried out into the yard and knelt before a tree with folded hands. He would practice each gesture used by the servers over and over again. To serve as an acolyte he must be perfect!
Later he built an altar in the front room of their home. Often, even when he was playing out in the yard, he managed to steal away to pray at this favorite spot, and to play at being a “priest.” With the first breath of spring, before the flowers in their own garden were in bloom, he searched the fields and woods and creek banks for blossoms to adorn his altar.
On their 160-acre farm, which Enos Kapaun has worked for over 40 years, there was always something to be done. Unlike the average boy, young Kapaun never dodged work. He looked for it. Often, particularly in the evening, when there was a chance to relax, Emil picked up a hoe and went to work in the garden, or he would chop weeds along the fencerows, even in the distant fields.
For recreation he would take a dip in the stream that flows near their home, or, with his fishing pole over his shoulder, he would seek out his favorite fishing spot. Running and playing in the fields, hunting, hiking to unusual places, working or playing — what he did — was done well, earnestly and with vigor. He was skilled in repairing and building implements, a knowledge which, in his future ordeal, was to be of vital assistance to him and his fellow prisoners.
From his parents he acquired traits that contributed to his virile character. He had a typical Bohemian temperament. He was quiet, retiring; yet possessed of a keen sense of humor revealed by a wry but inviting smile. He had the spirit of neighborliness that abounds among his people, who will gather together in the village when chores are finished, exchanging views on every possible topic. The children and young people are usually part of these informal and congenial groups. In fact, one of the most admirable notes of country life, and especially of this community, is the close and affectionate association between parents and children. Above all, their Catholic faith is the warp and woof of their lives.
The silver spire of the Pilsen church is something more than physical. It is the center, not only of the spiritual and educational activities of the community but also of its social life. Bohemians love to dance, particularly the polka. They thoroughly enjoy carnivals and cakewalks, suppers and bazaars. They like to celebrate, no matter what the occasion, and practically all their social celebrations are held in the parish hall and the church basement.
In addition to general characteristics, Emil inherited from his father and mother that rare character combination of a kindly disposition plus tenacity and determination. These traits he displayed to the very day of his death.
In appearance, Emil had an arresting grin, wide-set eyes, strong nose, chin firm and deeply cleft, and an ever-ready smile. He had a drawling, down-to-earth sense of humor.
Somehow his parents bequeathed to their boy a spirit of sacrifice, an acceptance of things as they are, an ability to face facts and situations, and an abiding assurance that there is Someone who directs the soul along the right path.
On September 5, 1922, at the age of 6, Emil began his formal education at the Pilsen School, District 115, in a building owned by the parish and still in use. The school was staffed by three Sisters Adorers of the Precious Blood, of Wichita, Kansas.
His agile mind and retentive memory enabled him to complete the eight primary grades in six years, with very little effort and almost perfect marks. His teachers testify that he grasped a subject at once.
“He was always ahead of himself. He certainly did not have to study hard,” says Sister Coletta who taught him in the eighth grade.
At times the teacher called upon Emil to explain to his classmates some difficult problem in arithmetic. He was so unassuming that no one took offense.
In religion class Father Sklenar frequently asked him to explain points to the less talented. Most of this instruction was given in Bohemian, the puzzling language which young Kapaun was determined to read and write as well as speak! Although English was the usual medium at home, he and his mother were wont to converse in her native tongue.
Sister Clare, who gave Emil private lessons in Bohemian, recalls how he would read the Bible in that language, welcoming corrections from classmates who were more familiar with the difficult tongue.
“He was a real boy,” she says, “ever-ready to tease and joke, an extremely clever mimic, imitating his teachers and classmates, but always inoffensively.”
The Pilsen playground adjoins the church. Emil frequently slipped away during recreation periods into church for a brief visit and a few moments of quiet prayer.
During his second year in school, May 29, 1924, he received his First Holy Communion.
Emil had almost perfect attendance during practically all six years of grade school, an astounding accomplishment, for the Kapaun home is a long three miles from school, the winters are unusually severe, and the roads often impassable. The lad would arrive at church an hour before the others in order to serve Mass for Father Sklenar. This service he continued on free days and during vacation.
In the spring and fall he was often seen cycling to school with a load of wildflowers on the handlebars. These he had gathered for the altar, especially for the Blessed Mother to whom he had a deep devotion.
His mother tells of an amusing incident that happened to Emil when he was about 10 years old. She was extremely busy and asked him to attend to the milking. For some reason, one cow was jittery; she would not stand still. Concluding that the cow missed the skillful handling of Mrs. Kapaun, Emil put on a dress belonging to his mother. The jumpy animal stood stock still while Emil milked successfully!
Another time, when his brother Eugene was about 8 years old, he told Emil that he would like to have a threshing machine.
“I’ll make you one,” said Emil. “I’m going in the shop and don’t bother me until I get it finished.”
He pounded and hammered for hours and finally came forth with a toy machine. Eugene said it would not work. Emil then poured some sand into one end and it came out the other, something like a threshing machine. Emil was ever resourceful and his brother satisfied.
He was graduated from the eighth grade in Marion on May 18, 1928, and the next fall enrolled in the Pilsen High School, which offered a two-year course. During those two years his cousin, Emil Melcher, lived with the Kapauns. They became close, life-long friends. They drove to and from school in Melcher’s two-wheeled pony cart.
The high school Sisters, who promoted various contests, at one time offered a prize for the best birdhouse. The two Emils set to work. Every spare moment they had a hammer or saw in hand, until finally, they finished a 22-room dwelling. Next they found an old telephone pole, sawed it off 12 feet from the ground, nailed their house to its top, and set it up on the school grounds. Their house won first prize and became a favorite rendezvous for a variety of birds.
The cousins were most conscientious about preparing their lessons. The kitchen table was their desk. Kapaun took great pains with the drawings for his science book. Often his mother came into the kitchen late at night to find her son diligently drawing and arranging specimens, while the Melcher lad, much stouter and less studious, was leaning on the table sound asleep.
A letter from Emil’s teacher in his sophomore year gives many sidelights on his character and disposition:
“Jan. 17, 1954
Dear Father Tonne,
At your request, I will try to jot down some of the random thoughts that drift back from my teaching career 25 years ago.
Emil was a sophomore the year I taught him. He was a most conscientious lad, studious and prayerful, though he never made a show of his ability or his inner goodness. In religion class he could always answer Father Sklenar. Emil read his Bible in Bohemian and would ask his Bohemian-speaking class members to check him when he faltered. This happened seldom, for he was much in earnest about learning the difficult as well as the simple Bohemian.
Latin was Emil’s big interest as he knew it would be important should he continue his studies. His good grades and the ease with which he mastered every new vocabulary, declension, and conjugation were very rewarding when he took an examination in Latin at Conception the next year. Emil wrote back with some pride that he passed the test with a grade of 96 percent. It was to the intelligent, industrious pupil rather than to the teacher that credit should be given.
Emil was always deeply interested in a magazine about the foreign missions called ‘The St. Columban Mission Society.’ He read it eagerly, and each month sent to its publishers his spiritual bouquet of prayers and sacrifices.
When I realized that Emil was in earnest about becoming a priest, I called him aside and mentioned that, if his parents had not the means to send him to the seminary, which seemed to be his only worry, he might ask the Columban Fathers to accept him without any financial burden. I checked his letter in which he gave his age, class, ambition, and difficulty. The Columban Fathers said they would accept him without any financial assistance. Sister Clare suggested that we discuss this with Father Sklenar, who was upset over this decision and said he should be a parish priest and that he would pay Emil’s way. Emil and his parents agreed to the pastor’s plan. The lad seemed content just so he could become a priest. But he always kept his interest in foreign missions.
One Christmas shortly before he was ordained, he sent me such a huge Spiritual Bouquet that it brought tears to my eyes. There were many prayers and sacrifices on the list, almost all of them for 30 days.
The only material souvenirs I have of Father Kapaun are the two holy cards he enclosed in the invitation to his First Mass; but my grandest souvenir is the blessed memory of having had this conscientious, studious, and saintly lad in my class.
Sister M. Vitalia