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Bishop Mark Carroll gave the keynote of the unforgettable ceremonies which marked the bringing of a crucifix carved in memory of Father Kapaun by other POWs.
“These soldiers have come to Pilsen from Korea — as the wise men of old came from the Far East to Christ, their hearts full of grateful love and their hands full of gifts,” Bishop Carroll said.
The day — June 6, 1954 — was truly a memorable occasion for the parents of the heroic priest, his fellow prisoners, the people of Pilsen, the bishop, and the entire diocese.
The day began with a memorial Mass in the spacious hall on the campus of Sacred Heart College, Wichita. The Mass offered by Bishop Carroll at 8 a.m. was appropriately held at the college because it marked the scene of Father Kapaun’s ordination in 1940. About 1,000 attended the service, and the sermon was given by the bishop.
The distinguished guests at the memorial rites were Col. Eugene Field, commanding officer of the 1st Cavalry Division, and Capts. Ralph A. Nardella, James Curry, and William McClain. These four soldiers represented the thousands of living and dead who fought in the heroic division, the first to cross the 38th Parallel in Korea.
After the Mass, sponsored by the Knights of Columbus of Wichita, all went to Christ the King Parish Hall for a Communion breakfast. The master of ceremonies was Col. Louis Coira, commanding officer of McConnell Air Force Base.
The first speaker was the bishop, whose remarks were brief because he wanted to give ample time to the military. Col. Field, who was in charge of Father Kapaun’s regiment and who was spared capture because he was wounded in battle and had been removed to a hospital, paid an eloquent tribute to his outstanding chaplain. Field said Father Kapaun had all the qualities that one might expect in a model soldier. He further said that the outstanding characteristic of Father Kapaun was courage — “He was the personification of intestinal fortitude.”
The feature speaker at the breakfast was, of course, Capt. Nardella, who spoke eloquently and feelingly of Chaplain Kapaun and highlighted his address with many interesting incidents both humorous and serious.
This devout soldier, who took over as fully as a layman could the place of Father Kapaun, described with many touching examples, the inspiration that the priest gave both as a chaplain and prisoner to men of all faiths.
At the end of his address the captain presented to Bishop Carroll two significant treasures: a small missal which was used by Father Kapaun and the white cross from the helmet of the beloved priest. Finally he presented a check for $8,300 and told Bishop Carroll that the handsome gift could be used for any charitable purpose.
This munificent sum came from the Father Kapaun Memorial Fund launched in the prison camp and fulfilled after the passing of three years. The check represented contributions from the military, from the many friends of Capt. Nardella in and around Paterson, N.J., and from individuals of all religions and all walks of life.
From Wichita the ceremonies shifted to Pilsen, 72 miles northeast — the end of the journey and the final resting place for the crucifix so painstakingly carved by Maj. Gerald Fink of the Marines. This crucifix, when first displayed at religious services in the prison camp, baffled the Communist guards. Capt. Nardella said that at first, the Communists wanted to take it away — they talked about it constantly but never did anything about it.
The cross itself is 26inches high, and the figure of Christ, clad in a loin cloth, is tall and slender. There is exquisite detail and appeal in the carving. The entire crucifix is mounted on a bronze plaque, 54 inches high and 34 inches wide, weighing 300 pounds. Inscribed in bronze, raised letters to the left are the words:
IN MEMORY OF FATHER EMIL J. KAPAUN, WHO DIED IN A COMMUNIST PRISONER OF WAR CAMP, MAY 23, 1951.
To the right is this prayer, likewise in bronze:
LORD IT IS TRUE THY YOKE IS EASY, THY BURDEN LIGHT. I HAVE OFTEN EXPERIENCED THAT IT IS PLEASANT AND COMFORTING TO BEAR THE BURDEN OF DUTY. I WOULD RATHER DIE FOR THE TRUE VALUES OF LIFE THAN LIVE FOR THE FALSE.
The prayer is from the Fifth Station of the servicemen’s Way of the Cross, which the men in the camp continued to say regularly and devoutly after Father’s death. To his memory, they always dedicated this Fifth Station, which tells how Simon of Cyrene helped Christ to carry His cross.
At 4 p.m. a procession formed at the Pilsen rectory. The processional cross, flanked by the American flag and religious banners took the lead, followed by the servers, the four trustees of the parish, visiting clergy, the four Army officers, and Bishop Carroll, who had as chaplains Father Charles Smith and Father Edward Pfirman.
The men in uniform had served and suffered with Father Kapaun. They knew him well. They loved him deeply. They came from distant points to prove their affection. Col. Field, now stationed at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., was wounded before the attack that took most of his men. He commanded the regiment to which Chaplain Kapaun was attached in Japan and later in Korea.
Capt. William A. McClain, stationed at Youngstown, Ohio, had served with the padre through to the last stand deep in North Korea, had been trapped and captured with him, had slept beside him in the same filthy hut. McClain declared that Father could have escaped by leaving the wounded “but that was not his way.”
Captain James Curry, who spent months in prison camp with Father, is now stationed at Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio, Texas. He is a medical officer who was nursed back to health by the devoted chaplain. McClain and Curry are non-Catholics, but nobody can outdo them in singing the praises of the heroic padre.
The fourth officer was Capt. Nardella. During the service all four of these splendid soldiers sat in the sanctuary, to the right of the plaque and crucifix which rested temporarily on a stout table to the Gospel side, near a large picture of Capt. Kapaun in uniform.
The majestic and spacious church of St. John Nepomucene was packed with 750 people from far and wide, long before the procession entered to the dignified strains of “Ecce Sacerdos Magnus” (Behold the Great Priest).
After the Litany of the Sacred Heart, led by Father Patrick Hughes of Florence, Kan., the pastor, Father Tonne, briefly welcomed all the guests and visitors, and then introduced what proved to be one of the most striking features of the day — the playing over a public address system of a recording of a sermon Father Kapaun made in Tokyo, Japan, April 22, 1950.
A trunk of the heroic chaplain’s effects, lost for over two years, arrived at the parental home on Good Friday, April 16, 1954. One of its most precious treasures was an 18-inch recording. It was the last of five radio talks on the Eight Beatitudes which Father gave over the Far East Army Network.
The talk was a simple and stirring homily on two of those Beatitudes: “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God,” and “Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
A hush of reverence and awe fell over the assemblage as the voice of their native son and former pastor came out of the loudspeaker, as if he were there in person talking to them. His concluding words were prophetic and came forth like a ringing challenge:
“In the early ages of the Church, the Christians were given their choice by the officials of the Roman Empire either of giving up their Christian faith, or of being put to death. The martyrs would not give up their faith. Consequently they suffered death, even though they were innocent of any crime.
“In recent years the same thing has happened. Christian people who tried to practice their faith and remain true to it found themselves persecuted and ostracized by people opposed to the Christian faith. We can surely expect that in our own lives there will come a time when we must make a choice between being loyal to our faith or of giving allegiance to something else which is either opposed to or not in alliance with our faith.
“O God, we ask of Thee to give us the courage to be ever faithful to Thee. Blessed are they who suffer persecution for justice sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
After this recording, Bishop Carroll gave a stirring address, deepened by his paternal affection for Father Kapaun, and heightened by the solemnity of the occasion. Among other things he said:
“By the miracle of science we have just heard the voice of a great soldier of Christ, coming to us here on the rolling and productive plains of his home parish in Pilsen.
“I want to thank these four distinguished soldiers of the 1st Cavalry Division … These men have had many important missions in their lives, but none so consecrated as this one, because today is a fulfillment of a vow made in the prison camp, that when they were free again, they would journey to this little town of Pilsen to honor their beloved Father Kapaun.
“As the bishop of that wonderful priest, I gratefully welcome these soldiers of our country. Through the grace of God they have been spared. They have come here with dedicated devotion, sincere affection. This holy pilgrimage from Korea to Pilsen is without precedent in military annals.”
His Excellency then enumerated the many precious relics the men had brought to Pilsen and concluded with a prophecy he had made a year and a half previous on the occasion of accepting the Bronze Star and the Distinguished Service Medal awarded to Chaplain Kapaun:
“At that time I did not know if Father Emil was dead or alive, but I made one prophetic statement: ‘Father Kapaun was an angel among men.’ That is the sum and substance of these soldiers’ evaluation of Chaplain Kapaun.”
After Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and the singing of Holy God, the parishioners and guests retired to the church hall for a bountiful supper and the opportunity to converse with the men who had survived the starvation and sufferings of a Communist prison camp — men who had felt the impact of Father Kapaun’s Christ-like spirit — men who had sacrificed time and money and convenience to travel many miles in order to express their appreciation to and their admiration for the selfless padre from Pilsen.
Col. Field, Capt. McClain, and Capt. Curry made brief but eloquent remarks. Curry, a medical officer whom Father Kapaun had nursed back to health from a siege of pneumonia, declared he has never been able to finish a talk about the heroic chaplain. He always chokes up. As his words trailed off in a hoarse whisper under the pressure of manly emotion, the crowd thundered its applause.
The special guest of honor, Capt. Nardella, upon whose stalwart shoulders the mantle of the deceased priest had fallen, gave a brief talk and then answered questions for an hour. Many pointed and searching queries came from the surrounding tables and from the crowd standing six deep all around:
“What did you have to eat?”
“How did you know when Father died?”
“What ‘brainwashing’ or ‘indoctrination’ methods did the Communists use?”
Patiently, feelingly, the intrepid captain, a giant of a man — physically, mentally and spiritually — answered every question, interspersing his explanations with humorous stories and with heart-rending details. Every word betrayed virile affection for the man of God who helped to keep them alive, and who is now the inspiration of their lives.
According to previous arrangement, Capt. Nardella remained overnight in the home of Father Kapaun’s parents. For three hours Sunday evening he told intimate details of prison life to a family group — Mr. and Mrs. Enos Kapaun, their son Eugene and his wife, and the pastor. There are so many things a gold star Mother would like to know.
Monday morning, June 7, at a memorial Mass for the heroic chaplain in his home parish, Capt. Nardella knelt beside the hero’s mother at the Communion rail. After breakfast in the rectory, it was time to part. Reverently and affectionately, as a son would his own mother, Capt. Nardella embraced Mrs. Kapaun, and shook with both hands the hand of Mr. Kapaun. All seemed to realize that it was the last living link between the parents and the soldier priest who had become to his fellow prisoners a symbol and personification of all that is worthwhile.
In a very definite sense, we are all beneficiaries from the life of Father Kapaun. He has left us a stirring example of devotion to duty. He has passed on to us a spirit of tolerance and understanding. He has given us a share in his dauntless bravery — of body and soul. He has transmitted to every one of us a new appreciation of America, and a keener, more realistic understanding of our country’s greatest enemy — godlessness, now stalking the world in the form of Communism.
He has bequeathed a picture of the Christ-like life. What Father Kapaun willed to us cannot be contained in memorials, however costly or beautiful. It is a treasure for the human soul — the spirit of one who loved and served God and man — even unto death.
Dates and events in the life of Father Emil J. Kapaun
- April 20, 1916: Born in Pilsen.
- May 9, 1916: Baptized in St. John Nepomucene Church, Pilsen.
- April 11, 1929: Confirmed by Bishop Schwertner.
- Sept. 11, 1936: Entered Kenrick Theological Seminary, St. Louis, Mo.
- June 5, 1937: Tonsure.
- June 10, 1938: Minor Orders.
- June 3, 1939: Ordained sub-deacon.
- Oct. 8, 1938: Ordained deacon.
- June 9, 1940: Ordained priest by Bishop Winkelmann, Sacred Heart College Chapel, Wichita, Kan.
- June 20, 1940: First mass, St. John Nepomucene Church, Pilsen.
- June 30: 1940: Assisted in his home parish.
- Jan. 5, 1943: Auxiliary chaplain at Herington Air Base.
- Sept. 16, 1943: Pastor of Pilsen effective when Monsignor Sklenar resigns.
- Nov. 2, 1943: Monsignor resigns.
- June 15, 1944: Recommended for army chaplaincy at own request.
- July 12, 1944: Relieved of pastorate at Pilsen and auxiliary chaplaincy at Herington.
- Oct. 4, 1944: Graduated from chaplain school. Chaplain at Camp Wheeler, Ga.
- March 4, 1945: Left Miami Beach, Fla., for India by plane.
- Jan. 3, 1946: Promoted to captain.
- June 4, 1946: Separated from active service.
- June 25, 1946: Private retreat at Conception, Mo.
- Aug. 1, 1946: Appointed temporary administrator of St. John Church, Spearville, Kan.
- Aug. 23, 1946: assistant at St. Theresa, Hutchinson, Kan.
- Oct. 1, 1946: Registered at Catholic University, Washington, D.C.
- February 1948: M.A. in education from Catholic University.
- April 9, 1948: Appointed pastor of Timken, Kan.
- Sept. 25, 1948: Re-enlisted.
- Nov. 15, 1948, to March 18, 1949: Fort Bliss, El Paso, Texas.
- Dec. 26, 1949: Left Pilsen and parents for last time.
- July 11, 1950: “Tomorrow we are going into combat.”
- Sept. 2, 1950: Awarded Bronze Star.
- Nov.2, 1950: Captured by Chinese Communists.
- May 23, 1951: Died in prison camp hospital, Pyoktong, Korea.
- Aug. 18, 1951: Awarded Distinguished Service Cross.
- Oct. 17, 1952: Awarding of medals in absentia to Bishop Carroll in home parish of Pilsen.
- July 29, 1953: Memorial Mass, St. Mary Cathedral, Wichita.
- 1991: Declared Servant of God.
- April 11, 2013: Awarded Medal of Honor.