© Diddle Publishing Co.
When Emil Kapaun went to Conception, Mo., in September 1930, it was not specifically a seminary, but a boarding high school and college with a strictly classical course. Most of the students did not go on for the priesthood, according to Father Edward Malone, O.S.B., professor at the time and now rector of the seminary, who writes:
“I well remember Father Kapaun as a student. Thinking of him now is somewhat like thinking of a mystery story after you have read the ending. Had you been more observant you might have spotted the clues the author divulged, which would have led you to guess the ending before you reached the last page. So it was with Father Kapaun. Now one remembers little things about him which were not significant then, but which might have let you know what sort of man he would be when the going was difficult, and he became involved in a crisis. Only one would hardly have suspected Emil Kapaun of ever becoming involved in a crisis. He was quiet, almost shy, just a nice boy to have around . . .
“But when you think of him now, you begin to remember things — the way he played football, for example. He lingered around the edges without anyone’s suspecting his being there. He was not a particularly muscular or rugged boy and hardly had the physique to make a regular berth on a football team, even one as anemic and battered as ours was. But he did play, and you would usually find him crawling out from under a pile-up, and you wondered how he happened to be there at all. He sort of reversed the formula of another great soldier, ‘he got there fustest with the leastest.’
“Of course, you can’t win wars that way. You can’t even win football games that way, and we didn’t win many. But there was a certain toughness and pertinacity in the man that always seemed to get him into the midst of things, no matter how hopeless the struggle. I imagine it must have been much the same with him in the grim game he played along the Yalu. The game was hopeless, but he stuck to his job.
“In academic matters, Father Kapaun was much more successful. Quiet and retiring in his manner in this as in all things, he was always near the top of his class. Others were more flashy and brilliant, but in the long run he seemed to work himself to the top like a large stone in a bucket of sand.”
Father Malone describes with feeling the retreat their former pupil made before returning to the service for the last time. He concludes: “We are very proud to have had some little share in training this great soldier and this excellent priest. Also we feel very humble about it.”
From schoolmates and professors come these interesting and revealing details regarding the years Emil Kapaun spent at Conception College. Without exception, they describe him as “quiet, friendly, pleasing, likeable, dependable.”
Father Walter Heeney, O.S.B., recalls: “He was the most normal man I ever met. When it was time to study, he studied. When he had to play a game, he would always be on time. He played his game and left. He liked to read for he was a brilliant student. His classmates would gather in his room before philosophy class and ask for his help, since he knew Latin and Greek very well. He was witty in his own way, but there was nothing flashy about him. He gave one the impression of a clean-cut fellow, around whom one would never tell a dirty joke or story.
“His main job was in the sacristy. One would find him working there, or in the chapel praying. It was his custom to make a visit before and after his work. He was always congenial and ready to help in any way.
“He was an exceptionally good student, who always knew the answers but never made a display of his knowledge. He was consistently on the honor roll. Emil was active in dramatics, in the Blessed Virgin Sodality, and in the Polyphonic Choir.
“His favorite sport was handball. He loved to walk, often hiking out to the grotto of our Blessed Mother, two miles from the Abbey. His devotion to Our Lady was exceptional.”
Another says that what distinguished him was his naturalness, his power of remaining undistinguished. He was in no way an extremist.
His appearance at this time was attractive although he was slim, and a bit stoop-shouldered. He had fine blond hair.
To one schoolmate Emil confided that he wanted to be a martyr.
His brother Eugene has observed:
“Emil wanted to join the priesthood for as long as I can remember, and he always took his religious studies seriously. Yet he never argued to convince anyone of his own beliefs. Instead, he had a way of humorously suggesting their merits — an attitude that was not only more convincing but which made him well liked.”
Evidently Emil perfected this approach through the years because he won his way into the hearts of all those whom he met, no matter what their religion. This was particularly true of the effect he had in later years on his fellow POWs, who all acclaimed him a man’s man as well as a true representative of his Catholic faith.
Father Bede Scholz, O.S.B., his spiritual director in those days, testifies that Seminarian Kapaun was at one time on the point of giving up his clerical studies. After hearing of these doubts, the priest urged him to go on. “His piety was so deep and yet so simple that I was convinced the little difficulties would not stand in the way of reaching his goal. His many duties as sacristan and head librarian, quietly performed, never kept him from praying a great deal in the chapel every day. This piety he had before he came. But he did develop a great love for the Mass. He continued this even when he returned for retreats as a priest during his military service.
“At one retreat he asked me to correct the ceremonies of his Mass, as he said they were most important and he might have become careless about them. As a student, he prepared for Mass by reading over the text the evening before. This he kept up as a priest, at least outside of his time in service. I do not know whether he was able to do this as a chaplain or not.
“He never refused his help in any capacity, no matter what the work might be. Always of a quiet disposition, he would enjoy being kidded about some of the things he had done wrong. During his student days I never thought of him as being a saint. His most extraordinary trait was his love for prayer.”
Another teacher, Father Damian Cummins, O.S.B., records his first and deepest impression of Emil Kapaun in class and on the playground at Conception:
“It was an impression of a very great quietness in this boy turning man, of a depth that did not come readily to the surface, not because of any refusal to do so, but simply because it was so deep, so far below the surface.”
In the summer of 1937, Father Damian temporarily replaced Father Sklenar as pastor of Pilsen while the latter was on a trip to Europe. He recalls:
“During that summer a fellow seminarian, now Father Leroy Downs, came out from Kansas City to visit Emil for a few days. The two and myself took a walk around a ‘country block’ in search of conversation. Emil must have noticed that I was enjoying the summer for he asked me point-blank which I would rather be — a monk or a parish priest. I told him I liked it best 50-50. He then told of a fellow seminarian who, when just ready for ordination after three years in the seminary, left to become a Trappist in Kentucky because he feared the responsibilities of a parish priest.
“On Labor Day of that year I was to return to Conception Abbey and had on my hands to deliver as a present to one of our North Dakota missionaries, an ancient Ford car, minus license plates, and myself, minus a driver’s license. I voiced my woes at the Kapaun farm. Emil’s mother suggested that he could drive me home, even though it was out of his way for returning to Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis. Despite a recent rainfall, we went out of our way over a freshly gravelled road to Emporia. The going was miserable. Emil, who was driving, had not a word of complaint and so it was all the way. Good road or bad road made little difference to him.”
During his six years at Conception, Emil returned home each summer to help with the farm work, especially the harvest. He always pitched in where the job was dirtiest and dustiest. Harvesting in hot, dry, Kansas June is stifling, choking labor.
A neighbor, Martin Klenda, noticed that young Kapaun was not wearing gloves. His hands were blistered and raw. When asked why he worked with bare hands, he replied in a matter-of-fact tone:
“I want to feel some of the pain our Lord felt when He was nailed to the cross.”
One noon the gang came in from the fields — tired, dirty, and famished. Mrs. Kapaun had prepared a table-bending meal. There was no one to help serve. The self-forgetful son came to the rescue, carried the steaming plates from the stove to the table, and waited upon the diners until all were satisfied. Only then did he sit down to eat.
The back-breaking and exhausting labor of the fields was salted with humor, sometimes with horseplay and practical jokes. The Kapauns had a hired man whose prize possession was a battered Model T Ford. One day young Kapaun shut off the gas line on the ancient jalopy. The hired man drove out of the yard to the main road. The car stalled. He cranked and cranked until his hands were blistered. Finally, Emil sauntered over and suggested that maybe he was not giving it enough gas!
Although his board and tuition were covered by scholarships, the young seminarian had to have a few extra dollars for travel and incidentals. To meet these expenses he raised chickens. His mother would start them off in the spring while he was away at school. To visitors she pointed them out as “Emil’s chickens.” At times there must have been problems in raising them as can be suspected from the accompanying snapshot.
No matter how busy the day promised to be, Emil went to Holy Mass and Holy Communion every morning and generally served at the altar in place of the boys assigned who were often irregular during vacation.
He was already attending Conception when his younger brother, Eugene, started in the first grade. They made up for the months of separation by full days of hunting, trapping and ice-skating during the Christmas holidays.
“I remember,” Eugene recalls, “when Emil mildly shocked one of his schoolgirl friends by wiring her seat to the ignition! He wasn’t above playing a good joke, so long as it didn’t really hurt anyone.”
Eugene also remembers when he and his brother dammed up the creek near their farm to make a swimming hole.
“The water started backing up and Dad got pretty mad because he thought it would wash out our bridge. Emil finally convinced him no harm would come. But we were both worried for a while.”
Emil’s private spiritual life was a case of still waters running deep; he tried to keep his piety hidden. As a seminarian, of course, he followed the minimum practices of daily Mass and Communion, a visit to the Blessed Sacrament, saying the stations and reciting the Rosary in honor of Our Lady.
His love of our Blessed Mother was deep and heartfelt. Proof is offered in a little leaflet found in his prayer book. It has the well-worn edges and the thumbed pages which betray frequent use. Handwritten at the top are the words:
To Emil Kapaun from Father Gregory.
The title of the leaflet: “THE PRACTICE OF THE THREE HAIL MARYS,” in honor of the Power, Wisdom, and Mercy of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
PRACTICE: Recite, morning and evening, the Three Hail Marys in honor of these three great prerogatives, with this concluding invocation:
In the morning, “O my Mother, keep me from mortal sin during this day.”
In the evening, “O my Mother, keep me from mortal sin during this night.”
The signs of wear on the leaflet reveal that Emil Kapaun said this prayer frequently, if not daily.
A seminarian’s life is a full one. Every hour of every day was planned at Conception, which is general in all Catholic seminaries.
The accompanying transcript of his studies and credits during seminary years shows the superb mind and diligent application of Emil Kapaun.
It also gives an idea of the curriculum in Catholic Seminaries and the course of studies pursued by all who prepare for the priesthood.
Kapaun’s splendid record during his first four years at Conception gave ground for this recommendation from the college registrar to his bishop:
“I do not hesitate in recommending him as a suitable candidate for the priesthood. He has good talent as you can judge from his report, and his conduct on and off the campus has always been very commendable. His application to studies, too, has been of the best.”Emil completed his last two years of college work at Conception with special emphasis on philosophy. Up until the candidate for the altar enters upon the study of philosophy his work is considered preparatory. Following that, two years of philosophy and four of theology are the minimum requirements for the priesthood.
Did Kapaun ever question his vocation? Did he ever wonder whether or not he was really called to be a priest of God? Like every student for the priesthood, at times he was beset with doubts and fears concerning his worthiness for so exacting a calling. Even as a seminarian, when friends mentioned that he might someday be a priest, he almost always answered: “Sometimes I think the sun will have to rise in the west before I could ever be a priest.”
He honestly thought that the dignity and responsibilities of Christ’s official representatives were too high for him. Here and there in his letters, even in those penned in a lighter vein, he expressed his high esteem for the honors to which he was called and in contrast his own profound unworthiness.
Once on a Saturday night, a time when farmers often congregate in town to shop and gossip. Emil was sitting with several friends on the steps of the Marion courthouse. To them he expressed his very serious doubts about his vocation. When they insisted on the immense amount of good he might do, his drooping spirits revived and he was greatly encouraged.
Further there was the formidable difficulty of finance, coupled with a desire to help his parents on the farm. For those were depression years. He could not have gone on without substantial assistance from several aunts, from Father Sklenar, and from his Bishop.
On September 11, 1936, he began the study of theology at Kenrick Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri. A classmate and close friend. Father Vesecky, recollects:
“He was loved by everyone, young and old, and he loved all people.
“His studies always came before recreation or sport. But he was always devout and had a warm smile for everyone.
When permitted, he would go fishing in the little lake on the seminary grounds. What fish he caught he gave to the Sisters in the kitchen. A memorable characteristic of his manner of speaking was the constant usage of the word ‘peoples’ instead of people.”
A man’s character is revealed in his letters to intimate friends. Kapaun’s closest friend was Emil Melcher, his cousin, who lived with the Kapauns for two years while both went to high school in Pilsen. They were inseparable. Everything was shared — work and play, joys and sorrows, successes and failures. When separated, the letters they exchanged regularly, give the reader an insight into the heart of a seminarian and into the hearts of two youths who were every inch boys. Following are some of the letters which the young seminarian wrote during the time immediately preceding his ordination.
February 1, 1938
“Well, here comes some more of the old stuff. Roll up your pants legs and put on your boots — she’s going to be deep.
“How are you? I’m feelin’ like a million dollars in 1934. Sorry I didn’t write sooner — but I was pressed for time; the exams had me by the neck and just about strangled me. But somehow I slipped thru the ‘half-nelson’ and won by a decision. I think I won all the rounds. We had a 9-round fight, i.e., 9 big husky exams to pin down.
“I’m awful late with this, but I want to thank you for that Christmas present. Since you gave me a traveling kit, you must think I am on the road too much. It’s hard telling when I will be traveling again (maybe soon, but I hope not).
“How are the old country, the people, weddings, funerals, and entertainments? Did Pete Rudolph have a big crowd at his hook-up? I haven’t heard any news from Pilsen, but I don’t imagine you are having trouble with floods like they are out East and North. Reports say Kansas is dry, i.e., ‘in need of rain’. We had a nice rain here Saturday night.
“We had a little tough luck here at the Seminary. One of the fellows got appendicitis. They could not remove the appendix because of some kind of poisoning, which caused his death. They brought the body out here over Saturday night and Sunday morning before they took it to his home in Peoria, Illinois. He was a swell fellow. Had only four months to go to be ordained a priest. That really put the clamps on the students. The fellows felt very bad, seeing their pal and classmate lying there in the coffin, dead! Something like that makes a fellow realize that he is going to die, probably at the time that he least expects it. We should always be ready to die.
“Well, Emil, before the Japanese try to pull us into war, I guess I better close. Spring is coming and summer is way off yet, but the groundhog is coming out tomorrow to try to see the sun here at St. Louis through the big cloud of smoke — then he’ll stay out and freeze for six weeks. Don’t forget to spiel when the news gets thick and gullible. Keep up the fight and I will, too.
Yours with love,
Joe G —h”
Note: Those dashes represent the name of “Joe Greenslough.” The two Emils called each other’ “Joe” and “Mike” interchangeably.
February 17, 1938
“Congratulations!! I am really glad to hear the news. Yessir, Emil, you are taking a step onward — for life, as you mentioned — but in that step I hope you will find happiness. Since God has called you to the married life, He is expecting you to do your duty and save your soul. After all, that is what He put us on this world for. But you know all this, I suppose, from those ‘good Bohemian instructions’ Father gave you. I bet you had a tough time with them. That gives you an idea of how my exams were (and why I am glad when they are over).
“Emil, I got your letter on Monday, the 14th, and ever since then I have been thinking —from now on I will have to write Mr. and Mrs. Emil Melcher. I know good and well you would like to have me there for the big celebration; and considering how we used to face our troubles together and how we used to work together, it makes me feel — well, as if I was not doing my part by not being there. Emil, I hope you understand — don’t think that I am ‘going down’ on you. I will be there as much as I can. On the 21st, I’ll offer up Holy Mass and Holy Communion, a rosary, the stations, and some other prayers, for your successful married life. Everyone needs them for a successful and happy marriage. And from 10 till about 11 that morning I’ll be thinking about you and what is happening!! And here is the greatest luck to you, Emil, that you may get through the ceremonies, etc., OK. And what I say for you goes for ‘Vicky’ too. After you get settled down, you’ve got to write me about it — and if you don’t give me one of your wedding pictures, I’ll clean up on you later!
“Well, so long, Emil; I hope I have explained myself. Surely you understand —.
Yours for success,
Emil (Mike Greenslough)”
February 21, 1938
“Dear Mr. and Mrs. E. Melcher
“Hello there — strangers!! Are you still alive?? I am wondering how your celebration is progressing.
“Thanks for the invitation. Sorry I couldn’t come — but I’ll invite you to my wedding and then you can get even with me.
“I heard Kansas was covered with snow. If that’s so, then you had a nice snowy wedding.
“Probably this letter will not catch you before you leave for your honeymoon. Where are you going? To Florida, California, or Wyoming?
“How did the drinks and grub hold out? I’ll be expecting a letter from you in about a month. By then you should be back from your honeymoon.
“I’m sending a little remembrance for your wedding. When I asked Father to bless the crucifix, he asked me what I was going to do with it. I told him to whom I was sending it, and he said:
“‘Good, tell them to hang it up in their living room where everybody will see it. And tell them to say some prayers together before the crucifix either in the morning or evening. If they continue this practice, God will bless their home and their work as Christ promised: “For where there are two or three gathered in My name, there am I in the midst of them.” I wish them a very happy and fruitful life.’
“Be sure to send me your new address.
Joe G. (Alias — Emil)”
October 10, 1938
“Dear Emil and Vicky,
“Well, just to show you that I am still percolating, here goes a struggle with my old typewriter. And what a struggle!
“How are you making it? Happy, I hope, with plenty to eat and an exciting election. If you send me a ballot, I’ll vote for you. I suppose you’ve got your wheat sown by now. I did not hear from any of the old Pilseners so I am a stranger when it comes to knowing what is going on.
“It looks like Czechoslovakia is having her troubles. Hitler seems to be getting his ‘share of the cake’ and he takes it without anybody doing anything about it. Just so that war spirit doesn’t get over here.
“Did you pay any attention to the Big Series ? I listened to the 4th game yesterday and I was disgusted with the Cubs.
“Maybe you are not much interested in sports any more, but still they furnish some pretty interesting entertainment. We have been playing some football—only touch variety. It is a lot of fun. We have softball, hard-baseball, etc. I even shot a few rounds of golf. Made 9 holes in 47 strokes. Not bad for an old farmer. It feels good to knock that old ball about a quarter of a mile—but it is not so good if you lose track of it. That’s the bad part about golf.”
“Pretty soon you will be husking corn again. Then you’ll get that wrist of yours limbered up and that back strained from scooping thousands of bushels of corn into your crib. If you are still husking at Christmas time, I’ll come out and help you.
As ever from
bashful Joe Greenslough”
February 19, 1939
“Dear Emil and Vicky,
“Congratulations on your wedding anniversary!! By now you know what kind of joys, trials, and sorrows married life brings. I wish you the best of luck and a great abundance of joy, both during this short period of Earth and during the never-ending life in heaven
“Well, how are you? I’m still all here — happy, with bright days ahead; plenty to do, plenty of good old fun, and not too much to worry about.
“It looks like things are happening pretty fast. I am afraid that our government is going to be involved in another bloody struggle.
“I suppose you read about Pope Pius’s death. The Church, in fact, the whole world, lost a great leader and a great advocate of world peace. I wonder who will be the next Pope and what name he will take. The last Pope, Pius X died in 1914; and in a few months the bombs were bursting and men were being mowed down like rats on the fields of France. At that time America was told that she was fighting ‘to make the world safe for democracy, whereas what we were fooled into fighting for was to lick Germany so England could hold her vast territories and get a little more.
“I’ll remember you in my prayers. Please pray for me, too, for I need it very much.
St. Louis, Missouri
April 5, 1939
“Dear Emil and Vicky, “I just received your letter this noon so I am going to answer it right away.
“Hitler seems to be getting a raking over the coals lately. England and France would like to rope in America again so that Americans would generously do the fighting for them at our expense in lives and money — and then England and France would nicely rake in some more territory as they did in the last world war. The real danger to us Americans is Russia. The newspapers picture one side of the question. The other they leave. We found that out during the recent war in spain. Franco was called a ‘rebel’, dangerous and destructive. His moves were always pictured in a bad light. But now we arebeginning to understand that we were not told the whole story. The sad part of it is that some Americans went over there to fight for the Communists against the Christians, and they were practically wiped out. I wonder when the Americans will learn not to fall for all the propaganda. Oh shucks — I should not be writing stuff like this.
Your old cousin as ever,
“P.S. Say a little prayer for me as I really need it. Lent didn’t get me down this time. I think I put on weight even while fasting — by gingoes. I better fast longer. Be good! I was going to put in a $5.00 bill as a present to you but I got the letter sealed before I remembered — Yours as ever.”
April 14, 1940
“Dear Emil and Vicky, Man alive!! I sure got behind on this one. Yes sir — I just didn’t get around to writing, what with a lot of studying to do and a lot of writing to get things set for the ‘Big Day’ and going into the city getting things lined up.
“What are you doing June 9? Will you be able to come down to Wichita to see me and four other young men ordained to the Priesthood? The Ordination will be at St. John’s Chapel. We were there on that high school trip. The chapel is large. If there is not room enough, I am sure you can squeeze yourself in with Vicky leading the way. I will be looking for you there eight weeks from today. You know, Emil and Vicky, I feel like the dickens. Maybe you do not realize fully what it means to be a priest, but I tell you — after I have studied all these years I am more convinced that a man must be a living saint to dare to take that step. And that is where my worries come in.
Gee whiz, I have a feeling that I am far, far from being a saint worthy to receive the Priesthood. Think what it means!! To offer up the Living Body and Blood of Our Saviour every day in Holy Mass — to absolve souls from sin in Holy Confession and snatch them from the gates of hell. These and a hundred more duties and responsibilities make a person realize that the vocation to the priesthood is so sublime that the angels in heaven were not given the honor, no, not even the Blessed Mother who was never stained with sin — even she was not called to be a priest of God — and here I am called! I hope you will be at the Ordination.
Yours sincerely in Christ,
For three weeks during August, 1939, when Emil Kapaun and John Vesecky were subdeacons, they assisted Father Thomas Green in street-preaching at Caldwell, Kansas, whose Catholic congregation was about 70 percent Bohemian. All of them, particularly the fallen-aways, took an excited interest in Emil Kapaun’s Bohemian instructions.
“The people just loved him,” states Father Green. “They flocked around him so as not to miss one word!”
Emil always dried the dishes after the meal. When they came back in the evening from the towns where they had spoken, the two young theologians would raid the icebox for left-over fried chicken.
His parents recall with singular pride the first sermon their son preached in his own parish. It was Christmas, 1939. Deacon Kapaun, home for the holidays, received permission to preach at the Midnight Mass.
Picture the delight of the congregation, the swelled chests of relatives, the thrill for Father Sklenar, when this son of the parish began to speak fluently and eloquently in Bohemian. His dear mother’s eyes sparkle today when she recalls that night. She even repeats some of the gestures he made and some of the points he emphasized. She smiles when relating how some of the relatives leaned over to her and asked:
“Is that really Emil up there?”
When young Kapaun finished his sermon. Father Sklenar, who was not given to demonstrating emotion, hurried over to the Communion rail, patted the youthful orator on the back, beaming with paternal delight.
From the day of his ordination, June 9, 1940, by Bishop Winkelmann at St. John’s Chapel in Wichita, Father Sklenar would not permit him to read a private Mass, until after his First Solemn Mass, June 20. This was a real trial for the young priest who found it difficult to wait.
The ribbon used to bind his hands together during ordination was hand-painted. Father Kapaun wanted to have it cut up into souvenirs for his friends but he was dissuaded because it was so beautiful. Ordinarily the ordination ribbon is a precious personal keepsake but, characteristically, Father wished to share this treasure with his friends.