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Father Emil Kapaun's life, deeds compiled

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2010, at 12:04 a.m.
  • Updated Friday, March 30, 2012, at 4:49 p.m.

The Rev. John Hotze in recent weeks has put together a parcel of mail so big that by the time he sends it to the Vatican he'll need a good-size pickup to haul it to the post office.

The parcel will contain two copies of everything ever written by or about Korean War hero Father Emil Kapaun. The records will help the Vatican decide whether the farm kid from Pilsen ought to be formally declared what his fellow soldiers say he was: a saint.

Kapaun, a priest and a U.S. Army chaplain, died in a North Korean prison camp in May 1951.

Before that, according to fellow soldiers, he saved hundreds of soldiers' lives, first by dragging many battlefield wounded through gunfire to safety, then by rallying soldiers to survive torture and starvation in the prison camps.

Military leaders, including a Secretary of the Army and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have recommended him for the Medal of Honor, and the Catholic church has investigated his eligibility for sainthood for decades.

Hotze has four seminarians at the Wichita diocese copying a decades-long accumulation of written or recorded documents, by or about Kapaun. There's enough paper to fill four file cabinet drawers with newspaper clippings, testimonials from fellow soldiers, Kapaun's typed or handwritten sermons — and his seminary class notes.

Among those class notes, Hotze said, the seminarians helping Hotze made a discovery in recent weeks.

"We'd had these typed notes from his seminary classes for a long time," Hotze said. "I had assumed all along that they were handouts in his classes (in the late 1930s at Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis).

"But then we talked with Father Jerry Sommer, the last surviving classmate of Father Kapaun at the seminary. He said there were no handouts in those classes. So we took a closer look, and realized that Father Kapaun had typed out all those notes... from shorthand notes he made in class. We found his shorthand notes."

It was one more discovery about a formidably talented man who was so humble and quiet that he never stood out as special... except in crisis.

Sommer, also an Army chaplain, is 95 and retired in St. Louis. He remembers that he and Kapaun were members of a class of 44 would-be priests at Kenrick before graduating in 1940.

"I was just amazed when I read about his heroic acts in the Saturday Evening Post in the 1950s," Sommer said Monday.

"I thought, 'My goodness, this was my fellow student!'

"But the thing is, I could never remember any special thing about him from the seminary. He was a good guy, very devotional, and played all the usual games, soccer, basketball, handball. But other than that, I couldn't remember much about him."

Hotze, in researching Kapaun for years, has encountered many people who noted the same thing: Kapaun never stood out in a peacetime crowd.

But now people from Wichita attribute two possible miracles to him — and Hotze has compiled hundreds of pages about those alleged miracles that will also be read in Rome.

One person at the center of those stories is Chase Kear from Colwich, the 22-year-old athlete who still says his survival after a pole vaulting accident in 2008 occurred because of the intercession of the soul of Father Kapaun.

Kear overshot a safety mat during practice at Hutchinson Community College and smashed his head on the ground. Doctors, including the neurosurgeon who helped save his life, have already told Vatican investigators that Kear's brain damage was so severe that his survival was a miracle, unexplainable by medical science.

Kear spent much of the Christmas holidays with the extended Kear family that prayed to Father Kapaun for his life. He's taking welding classes at the college, and helps coach the track team's pole vaulters.

He says he's still grateful, and still hears regularly from people who want to know how they can endure crisis or problems in their own lives.

When he gets questions like that, Kear sends them a copy of the Father Kapaun prayer, a short request to God that his family and friends recited thousands of times as he lay near death in a Wichita hospital two years ago.

"I pass it along and tell them that it helped me, and that maybe it'll help them," Kear said. "Maybe it will, maybe it won't; I tell people I'm not the one to decide that.

"But I pass the prayer along to people whenever I can."

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com.

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