COLWICH — "Chase survived in part because hundreds of people prayed to Father Emil Kapaun to intercede on his behalf. It was absolutely a miracle." — Paula Kear, Chase's mother
People in Colwich like to touch Chase Kear's arm or his shoulder with their fingers. Or they hug him. "Miracle Man," they say. "Let me touch the miracle." With anybody else in Colwich, this would be just talk. But it's not just talk to the Vatican.
Prompted in part by what the Kear family has said publicly, and partly by a preliminary investigation begun by the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, a Vatican investigator named Andrea Ambrosi will arrive from Italy in Wichita on Friday.
He will investigate on behalf of the church in Rome whether 20-year-old Chase Kear's survival qualifies as a miracle; whether he survived a severe head injury last year in part because his family and hundreds of friends successfully prayed thousands of prayers to the soul of Father Emil Kapaun, a U.S. Army chaplain from Pilsen, Kan., who died a hero in the Korean War.
Ambrosi, a lawyer by training, is coming here to thoroughly "and skeptically" investigate whether Chase's story is a miracle, said the Rev. John Hotze, the judicial vicar for the Wichita diocese. The church requires miracles to elevate a person to sainthood.
Hotze has investigated Kapaun's proposed sainthood for eight years, which is only a fraction of the time the church has been considering whether to elevate Kapaun to sainthood.
Soldiers came out of prisoner-of-war camps in 1953 with incredible stories about Kapaun's heroism and faith. Across Kansas, his memory is kept alive at Wichita's Kapaun Mount Carmel High School, in his hometown of Pilsen and elsewhere.
Kapaun is so well-known and so highly regarded by area Catholics that the diocese has received other reports of miracles involving Kapaun, Hotze said. Ambrosi on Friday will consult area physicians in at least three such cases, including Chase's, Hotze said.
Only two American-born people have ever been canonized as saints. For sainthood, the church will require at least one and possibly two miracles be proven on Kapaun's behalf, depending on whether he died a martyr, something the church is also trying to determine.
Among people that Ambrosi will consult on Friday will be Chase's neurosurgeon, Raymond Grundmeyer, who said in a brief e-mail last week that he considers Chase's survival a miracle.
If Ambrosi's report concurs, more church officials would still have to evaluate the case, but it would further a cause that Kapaun's fellow prisoners of war and Catholic Church officials have carried on for years: to persuade the church to declare Father Kapaun a saint.
"There is no doubt in anyone's mind in our family that Father Kapaun helped save our son," Paula Kear said of Chase, who is making a full recovery. "We were told at least three or four times in those first two days that Chase wasn't going to make it.
"Dr. Grundmeyer did a great job in saving him, but even he said he couldn't explain why he survived."
Kapaun was a chaplain assigned to the U.S. Army's Eighth Cavalry regiment, which was surrounded and overrun by the Chinese army in North Korea in October and November 1951.
Kapaun became a hero, rescuing wounded soldiers from the battlefield and risking death by preventing Chinese executions of wounded Americans too injured to walk.
He became a hero again in prison camp, stealing food for prisoners, ministering to the sick, saying the rosary for soldiers, defying guards' attempts to indoctrinate soldiers, making pots and pans out of roofing tin so that soldiers could boil snow into drinking water and boil lice out of their filthy clothing.
Hundreds of American prisoners died in the camp of exposure or starvation or illness that first winter. The Chinese guards did nothing to tend Kapaun when he became sick; he died in May 1951, two years before the war ended.
Soldiers who survived have praised Kapaun for decades; some of them have said he deserved not only sainthood but the Medal of Honor, in addition to the lesser Distinguished Service Cross the Army awarded him after his death.
The Kear family says Kapaun's role in Chase Kear's survival 57 years later began about two hours after their son was injured.
Chase, a member of the Hutchinson Community College track team, fell on his head during pole vaulting practice in October.
By the time a helicopter delivered him to Via Christi Regional Medical Center-St. Francis Campus, his family was already frantically praying as they watched the helicopter land.
Within an hour of that landing, Paula Kear's sister, Linda Wapelhorst, was asking a priest at St. Francis to perform the Catholic sacrament of anointing the sick, which used to be called last rites.
And she was calling Sacred Heart Church in Colwich, asking people there to get everyone in the church praying to Father Kapaun for help.
In the following days, Grundmeyer and others had told the family that Chase's skull had been cracked from ear to ear, that his brain was swelling, and that either the surgery to remove a skull piece or the infection that might follow would probably kill him.
Paula and Paul Kear and dozens of other people made regular trips to the chapel at St. Francis to pray, always with the Father Emil Kapaun prayer.
The Kapaun prayer had become a standard for parishioners in Colwich since a priest from the parish had come down with cancer several months before.
"Father Emil Kapaun gave glory to God by following his call to the priesthood and thus serving the people of Kansas and those in the military," the prayer says. "Father Kapaun, I ask you intercession not only for Chase Kear... but that I too may follow your example of service to God and my neighbor. For the gifts of courage in battle and perseverance of faith, we give you thanks oh Lord."
What happened next, Grundmeyer said last week, was "a miracle."
The family agrees. Only a few weeks after Chase broke his skull, he walked out of a rehabilitation hospital, shaken but alive.
His near-complete recovery stunned all the doctors involved, Paul and Paula Kear said.
"Chase survived in part because hundreds of people prayed to Father Emil Kapaun to intercede on his behalf," Paula Kear said.
"It was absolutely a miracle."
Chase himself says he has little memory of what happened. For interested visitors, he will calmly part his thick hair with his fingers and show the long semi-circular scar that traverses much of the right side of his scalp.
He's working a summer job and plans to coach the pole-vaulters at the Hutchinson Community College. He misses vaulting; he's grateful to Grundmeyer and Kapaun.
"So how does it feel to be a miracle?" his mother asked him last week.
"It feels pretty cool," he said.