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Guide shares Kapaun’s story with passion

Staff writer

When Harriet Bina of Marion agreed to help Rose Mary Neuwirth conduct tours at the Pilsen Catholic church and Emil Kapaun museum, she already was enamored with the history of the army chaplain.

Becoming a tour guide let her impress on others the incredible sacrifice Pilsen’s native son, now a candidate for sainthood, made to serve others.

She recalled the first time she served as a guide.

“I remember being sick to my stomach and going outside and vomiting before going in to give the presentation,” Bina said.

Her family moved to Pilsen in 1951, when she was in fourth grade. It was the same year that Chaplain Kapaun, who had been captured the year before, died in a prisoner-of-war camp in North Korea.

She was there when a cross Kapaun had made in the camp was brought back to Pilsen.

She saw when Kapaun was awarded a bronze star and a Distinguished Service Cross.

“At that time, we didn’t yet know that he had died,” Bina said.

The medals were given to Kapaun’s parents, Enos and Bessie Kapaun, but they gave them to the church.

“I gave my son to the church, so the medals belong to the church,” his mother said at the time.

Bina recalled: “I was excited about the medals, but Bessie looked very sad and didn’t smile. She didn’t know where her son was. I will never forget that expression on her face.”

The experience made a deep impression on Bina. She read and reread the four books that have been written about Kapaun.

When she became a tour guide, she read them again, always finding a few more nuggets to share with visitors.

Her passion for Kapaun comes out as she talks to people about his life. Sometimes, her fellow tour guides tell her she talks too much, Bina said. The stories she has to tell are endless.

She especially enjoys talking to children, many coming from Catholic schools. She thinks it is important they know Kapaun’s story.

“Their teachers think they know the story, but it’s different when they get to Pilsen,” she said. “They are more attuned to his story. Once they hear Kapaun’s story, walk on the grounds where he walked, see the baptismal where he was baptized, and view the statue, it means more.”

One room in the museum contains all the memorabilia related to Kapaun. Bina tells visitors it is the same room in which Kapaun’s parents learned back in 1950 that their son was a prisoner of war.

Some visitors are especially memorable, including a Japanese woman, a woman and her son from South America, the bishop of South Korea, and a military couple from South Korea.

The highlight of her life was a trip on April 11, 2011, to watch the posthumous presentation of the Congressional medal of honor to Kapaun in Washington. His nephew, Raymond Kapaun, accepted the medal. The fact that it was Bina’s birthday made the day even more special.

Many veterans have visited the museum. Bina has seen some stand before the medal of honor with tears streaming down their faces.

One visitor whose father was in the same POW camp wanted to hear every story about that time. When he saw the replica Bina had made of a POW house, he said, “Everything my dad told me about the prison camp you brought back to life.”

More recently, Bina has given tours to Protestant church groups, including Marion Christian Church, Presbyterian and Methodist churches in McPherson, and a Mennonite tour group.

“We aren’t here to compare our faiths,” she told them. “We just want to share our story.”

Bina schedules tours and makes arrangements for tour guides. She serves with Neuwirth, Melissa Stuchlik, Carole Sklenar, and Kelly Krch.

Sometimes people stop in unplanned, and Bina drops everything to go to Pilsen and give a tour, whether it be to one person or a group.

One time, Bina gave nine tours in six days.

“To me, it never gets old,” she said. “I will keep doing it as long as I can and as long as my memory stays with me.”

Last modified June 1, 2017

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